The Orphans' Court Division is responsible for adjudicating a wide range of matters and the name of the Court is derived from the more general definition of "orphan", not the more common parlance of a child whose parents are deceased. Instead, the purpose of the Orphans' Court is to protect the personal and property rights of all persons and entities that may not be otherwise capable of handling their own affairs. Included under this rubric are minors, incapacitated persons, decedents estates, nonprofit corporations and trusts – both inter vivos (between the living) and testamentary. The Orphans' Court is the arbiter of any dispute or issue that may arise in connection to the application for a marriage license through the Philadelphia Marriage License Bureau. It is the role of the Court, in any of these matters, to ensure that the best interests of the person or entity are not compromised. It has been a longstanding tenet of the Orphans' Court to provide access to the courts for those who may lack the ability to defend or represent themselves.
Specifically, but not limited to the following list, the Orphans' Court Division has the authority to appoint guardians for both minors and incapacitated persons, adjudicate disputes over the administration of decedent's estates including approving accounts of administrators/executors, resolve appeals from the Register of Wills ("will contests"), handle inheritance and estate tax disputes and approve civil settlements involving minor plaintiffs and/or estates.
Starting in January 2001, newly appointed Administrative Judge O'Keefe initiated several projects designed to not only build on the basic principles that have guided the Orphans' Court since its creation in 1683, but to improve upon that foundation and guide the Court into the 21st Century. Most important toward achieving these goals was to upgrade the technological capabilities of the Orphans' Court.
On July 1, 2001, the Orphans' Court debuted its new case management and docketing system. The Banner System, similar to that used in the Trial Division - Civil, has allowed the Court to better track case flow, accumulate statistics and projections and dispose of matters at a quicker rate then ever before. In addition, attorneys now have access to dockets, hearing and conference schedules and audit lists via the internet.
The Orphans' Court web site has seen marked improvement since January 2001. In an effort to make practice in the Orphans' Court more user friendly and spurred by interest from the Probate Section of the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Court has continuously added helpful resources to the web site including official court forms, unofficial sample forms, reference materials and both the Supreme Court Orphans' Court Rules and the Philadelphia County Orphans' Court Rules
The History of Orphans' Court
Philadelphians can take pride in the fact that Orphans' Courts have been held in this City since 1683. They can further take pride in the able and distinguished jurists who have sat as Judges of those Courts. The current Judges of this Division continue a long and illustrious tradition.
King Charles II granted the province of Pennsylvania to William Penn by Royal Charter dated March 4, 1681. William Penn came to Pennsylvania in October of 1682 and called a General Assembly. See Section 1, pages 11-12 of The Pennsylvania Manual, Volume 112 (December, 1995) Sitting at Chester, on December 7, 1682, the first General Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania enacted the 77th Law which provided that the justices of each County Court should sit, "....to inspect and take care of the estates, usage, and employment of orphans, which shall be called the Orphans' Court * * * That care may be taken for those, that are not able to take care for themselves." See Opinion by Trimble, P.J., in Harton's Estate (No. 2), 86 P.L.J. 18, at page 21 (1938). "It is probable, that both the name and jurisdiction of this court were borrowed from the Court of Orphans of the city of London, which had the care and guardianship of children of deceased citizens of London, in their minority, and could compel executors to file inventories, and give security for their estates." See Opinion by Justice Sergeant in the matter of Wimmer's Appeal, 1 Wh. 95, 101 (1835).
The Orphans' Court of Philadelphia County was organized as a separate court of record under the Constitution of 1874, on January 4, 1875, and consisted of three judges. Three more judges were added, one each, in 1887, 1907 and 1927. Judge Allen M. Stearne and Judge Grover C. Ladner rose to become Justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Judge Charles Klein was appointed to the Court on December 24, 1934, and, became President Judge on January 14, 1952. Judge Klein served as the last President Judge of the Orphans' Court of Philadelphia County, and, the first Administrative Judge of the Orphans' Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. By constitutional amendment, effective January 1, 1969, the separate Orphans' Court of Philadelphia County was abolished and became the Orphans' Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.