Dianne Yamin wanted a challenging, ever-changing and rewarding career where she was helping people, and she found all that and more as a probate court judge. On Dec. 31, the Mercer Law School alumna retired as probate judge for the District of Danbury in Connecticut. During her 32 years in that role, she helped countless individuals and families navigate legal matters and solve issues.
Yamin realized in 10th grade that she wanted to be an attorney, although she wouldn’t discover the type of law she wanted to practice until later. She earned her undergraduate degree at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and decided to head south to Mercer for law school, so she could experience a new part of the country. She was enticed by the school’s prestige and reputation and intrigued by its civil law clinic.
“It was all those factors that led me to that decision,” said Yamin, a 1986 graduate. “I’m so blessed and glad that I did. It turned out to be a great thing for me. It helped me with the foundation for my career. The people that I met have been invaluable to me and really important in my life.”
Guided by great professors, she gained knowledge and skills that she used throughout her career. The civil law clinic had a tremendous impact on her, allowing her to be involved in real cases as a student. She handled a divorce case and car repossession case, which provided a good jumping point for her first job out of law school.
Yamin started out working with a general practitioner at a small firm in Danbury, which let her try various types of law and narrow down her specialty. She served on a panel of court-appointed attorneys for probate court and juvenile court, representing neglected and abused children and serving as conservator for several elderly people who had no family.
“I loved that work,” she said. “When an opening came for that (probate judge) position, I had only been practicing law for four years, but it was the area of law that I really loved. I didn’t expect to win, but I did. I ran a real grassroots campaign. I knocked on thousands of doors.”
When she was elected as probate judge in 1990 at age 29, she was the first woman to serve in that role in Danbury and the youngest elected judge in Connecticut, a feat that she has always been proud of. She served eight four-year terms and was uncontested for the last five elections.
Yamin explained that probate court is like a family court. It handles a variety of family-related matters, including wills, trusts, estates, name changes, guardianships, paternity actions, parental rights, hearings related to mental health treatment, weddings, adoptions, emancipations and immigration status hearings for minors. She especially loved the work that involved children.
“I think what I liked about the probate work was the one-on-one contact with people. In this role, you’re really meeting people where they are — literally and figuratively —seeing people, meeting families, helping them in the many ways the court can, even holding hearings in people’s homes, nursing homes and hospitals,” Yamin said. “I enjoyed helping them and helping families solve their problems and issues. That was really significant to me.”
A lot of people think probate is just taxes and wills, but it’s so much more, Yamin said. She discovered early on that many people have a negative connotation of probate court, and she made it her goal to change that thinking.
“As I was practicing law and people were coming in to do their wills, a lot of people were asking me, ‘What can I do to avoid probate?’ People in general had a fear of it,” she said. “In my experience, probate was the opposite. I thought it was important to educate the public about what a probate court does. That was my platform as I ran for office. I really did live up to that.”
Yamin gave presentations regularly on this topic across the community, including for Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, colleges, senior centers, local bar associations and retired state employees. She started out giving 30-40 seminars a year and expanded from there.
The cases Yamin handled were sometimes challenging and emotional, especially when they involved child custody, mental health or family disputes. She said she worried and lost sleep on those kinds of cases, and since her faith was important to her, she prayed about them a lot. But, the gratifying cases far outnumbered the difficult ones. She estimated she has performed at least 800 weddings, and she always loved being involved in adoptions.
“It’s been the most rewarding experience of my life to be a probate judge all those years. I really do feel blessed,” she said. “It’s been more rewards than challenges.”
Among her career accomplishments, Yamin was involved in the Connecticut Probate Assembly and served on the executive board for 14 years. While she was serving as president, she oversaw a pivotal transition period as the state’s 117 probate courts were consolidated to 54.
Her most recent achievement came in November when she was elected by her peers to serve as president of the National College of Probate Judges — the only national organization dedicated to the improvement of probate law and probate courts — which she has been a part of for the past 30 years. Yamin said she timed her retirement around this new position, so she would be able to focus on her role with the organization and also spend more time with family and friends.
She and husband Bob, a lawyer with Yamin and Yamin LLP, have two grown daughters, Rebecca and Samantha. Dianne Yamin has lent a hand at their family firm for many years and plans to continue doing so.
In celebration of her retirement, Yamin and her husband embarked on a four-month world cruise in January. Yamin said she has a lot of goals she’s working on with the National College of Probate Judges, and she’s been running regular virtual meetings from the ship, so she won’t miss a beat. She hopes to travel more in the future.
Yamin has been extremely active in the Danbury community over the years, and she doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. She served on the Board of Directors for the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce for about a decade, becoming its first female chair and creating the successful Women’s Business Council. She has been dedicated to the Danbury Lions Club, holding various roles including president, and co-chairs the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation’s Age Well Community Council, in addition to many other community involvements.
“I feel like I’ve had a very blessed life with a wonderful upbringing with my parents,” she said. “Danbury has been great to me. It’s been a great community. It’s a feeling of wanting to give back to the community.”