For the typical Montgomery County voter, the elected post of register of wills draws a lot of curiosity and blank stares. But a spirited race this fall between two partisan candidates is providing wider exposure for the low-profile office.
Whether it's at senior citizen clubs, bar association gatherings, community meetings or PTA coffee klatches, questions abound about the functions of the register of wills, according to both candidates in the Nov. 6 general election.
"I do a lot of public speaking on the campaign trail," said incumbent Democrat Patricia Dauenhauer, who was appointed last year to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Rosalie Reilly. "There are not many speakers on this topic."
Dauenhauer's opponent, Republican Tema Burns, said she also must frequently explain the office's duties to prospective voters. "I get lots of questions about the post," said Burns, a former schoolteacher and office manager at a Silver Spring accounting firm owned by her husband, Sidney J. Burns.
Lack of public familiarity with the office, which processes wills and estates of deceased people, has not dampened the candidates' enthusiasm for the $45,000-a-year job.
Dauenhauer, 39, is running on her 15 years of experience and interest in modernizing the office. "You can't get a PhD and perform in this office," she said. "Every job in here requires in-house training."
Managing estate records, some of which date to 1779, has grown significantly in recent years, Dauenhauer said. Last year, the Montgomery office processed 3,000 wills and estates, more than triple the total handled 15 years ago, she said.
Burns, 47, said her platform focuses on the need for political change and increased administrative and fiscal accountability in the Register of Wills Office.
"I'm a firm believer in a strong two-party system," said Burns, 47. "There needs to be more competition in courthouse races."
Citing her financial and personnel background, Burns, a political neophyte, said her chief goal, if elected, will be to improve the office's service to estate lawyers, estate planners and the public.
"There is a highly educated electorate here in the county who feel they can handle the settlement of estates for a brother, sister, mother or niece," Burns said. "I want to make that process less time-consuming and simpler for them."
Dauenhauer said public service is the main objective of the office's 26-member staff. "Ninety percent of our time is spent helping people fill out forms and answer questions."
If she wins in November, Dauenhauer said she intends to press state officials for increased automation in the office. "If we don't keep up with the increased paperwork, things will fall further behind."
Montgomery County residents wishing to vote in the Nov. 6 general election must register by Tuesday.
Applications can be obtained by calling the Voter Information Service, 424-4433.
The forms also are available at county libraries, health department offices, Motor Vehicle Administration offices, social services offices and community service centers in Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Silver Spring and Wheaton.