Probate and estate matters are governed by state law. The federal government may tax an estate, but it does not handle will contests or, for example, guardianships. Pennsylvania does not have a probate court, per se. Rather, it has Orphans’ Court.
We are one of two states to have an Orphans’ Court, so the term may sound unfamiliar or even antiquated. The first step to understanding what the court does, though, is to understand that the term “orphan” has a broader definition than the one we are used to, the one in novels by Charles Dickens. Orphans in this case are people who lack protection; the Orphans’ Court steps in to protect the rights, both personal and property, of Pennsylvanians who cannot handle their affairs on their own. Minors, incapacitated individuals, decedents, nonprofits and trusts are all included in the court’s jurisdiction.
The court has changed over time. As Pennsylvania established itself as a colony and then a state, its court system evolved to meet the needs of its citizens. According to the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania website, early settlers had to deal with a disconnected judicial non-system — local courts and part-time courts pretty much operated independently.
For anyone who thinks that our court system is slow, consider that Pennsylvania had no statewide court of final appeal until 1722. Prior to that, all appeals went to England for final disposition. In 1776, the state constitution established a formal court system for each county made up of a Court of Sessions, Court of Common Pleas and Orphans’ Court. Chester County residents could have their cases heard and decided in Chester County.
Over the next two centuries, the state’s constitution would be revised, and the court system would be reconfigured. In 1968, the unified system we have now came into being. The Orphans’ Court remained a separate entity in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh but became a division of the Court of Common Pleas in all other counties, including Chester.
Again, we are devoting a blog post to the Orphans’ Court because it is where probate and trust matters are heard. As you develop your estate plan or challenge a loved one’s will, remember that the court is more than an objective third party. The court has a solemn duty to protect the interests of those who cannot do so themselves.
Source: Purdon’s Pennsylvania Statutes and Consolidated Statutes, via Westlaw