The Orphans' Court
In Maryland, each county (except Montgomery and Harford) and Baltimore City has an Orphans' Court consisting of a panel of three judges that oversees the probate process for many, but not all, estates. The Orphans' Court was established under the first constitution of the State of Maryland in 1776 and has been part of our judicial system since colonial days.
The Orphans' Court in Cecil County
In Cecil County the office of the Register of Wills serves as the Clerk to the Orphans' Court. The Register of Wills is responsible for appointing personal representatives to administer decedents' estates and for overseeing the proper and timely administration of these proceedings. It also performs the following duties: assists and advises the public in the preparation of all required forms; maintains and preserves the permanent record of all proceedings; tracks estates and refers delinquent matters to the Court; determines and collects inheritance taxes and probate fees/court costs; audits accounts of personal representatives and guardians; mails various notices and court orders to interested persons; and, verifies compliance with court orders.
Function of the Orphans' Court
Most of the court's duties have to do with the administration of estates. It is the responsibility of the Orphans' Court to ensure that the provisions of a will are followed, that the rights of heirs are protected in the absence of a will, that creditor's rights are preserved, and that the personal representative fulfills his duties. The Orphans' court conducts judicial probate, directs the conduct of personal representatives, secures the rights of minors, and rules on fees for attorneys and personal representatives.
Only part of the Orphans' Court's duties actually have to do with "orphans." The court has jurisdiction over the estates of decedents. If an inheritance is left to a minor child, the court may appoint a guardian of the property. The guardian will report to the court on a regular basis until the child comes of age.
The Orphans' Court also settles disputes over estates and may rule on such matters as testamentary capacity, fraud, undue influence, and due execution of a will. Proceedings in this court are often less formal than in others.
Judges of the Orphans' Court
The Judges of the Orphans' Court are elected by the people and are accountable to the people. After two centuries, the Orphans' Court is still a high privilege of citizenship in Maryland. There is something unique and personal about the availability of the judges of a probate court to the people whose estates are to be administered. Their job is to enforce your will, to preserve the integrity of your estate, to protect the rights of your heirs, to settle disputes that may arise, and to safeguard your children's inheritance. The three judges function as a team; they are part of the local community and the merge their different perspectives and experiences in the decision-making process for the good of the people they serve.
Authority of the Orphans' Court
The Orphans' Court fits into the Maryland court structure at a horizontal level with the Circuit Court. Its jurisdiction is limited to probate and property guardianship, but within that jurisdiction it has full power to enforce rulings.
Appealing a Decision
The decisions of the Orphans' Court may be appealed to the Circuit Court where they will be heard de novo, meaning as a new case, or to the Court of Special Appeals where they will be heard on record. In addition, issues of fact may be transmitted to the professional courts for determination by judge or jury. The matter is then returned to the Orphans' Court for further proceedings.