Orphans Court Records


  The Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania of 1790 included Article V, Section VII which stated that the judges of the court of common pleas would compose an orphanĺs court as necessary. As early as the year 1713, the General Assembly of the province of Pennsylvania had enacted Acts designed to safeguard the estates bequeathed to children by their deceased parents. It was a general custom for a widow to remarry, and also for a father to bequeath the bulk of his estate to his children. In order to ensure that a new stepfather did not steal the childrenĺs inheritance from them, the orphansĺ court was established.

  On 27 March, 1713 an Act for eâtablishing Orphans Courts was enacted by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. The first section of that Act stated that:

The juâtices of the court of general quarter âeâsions of the peace in each county of this province, or âo many of them as are or âhall be from time to time enabled to hold thoâe courts, âhall have full power, and are hereby empowered, in the âame week, that they are or âhall be by law, directed to hold the âame courts, or at âuch other times as they âhall âee occaâion, to hold and keep a court of record in each of the âaid counties, which âhall be âtyled The Orphans Court; and to award proceâs, and cauâe to come before them, all and every âuch perâon and perâons, who as guardians, truâtees, tutors, executors, adminiâtrators, or otherwiâe are or âhall be entruâted with, or in any wiâe accountable for, any lands, tenements, goods, chattels or eâtate, belonging or which âhall belong to any orphan or perâon under age, and cauâe them to make and exhibit, within a reaâonable time, true and perfect inventories and accounts of the âaid eâtates..."

  Section III of the Act of 1713 stated that:

"When any complaint is made to any of the âaid juâtices, that an executrix having minors of her own, or being concerned for others, is married, or like to be eâpouâed to another huâband, without âecuring the minors portions or eâtates, or than an executor or other perâon having the care and truât of minors eâtates, is like to prove inâolvent, or âhall refuâe or neglect to exhibit true and perfect inventories, or give full and juât accounts of the âaid eâtates come to their hands or knowledge, than and in every âuch caâe, the âame juâtices are hereby required forthwith to call an orphans court, who âhall cauâe all and every âuch executors and truâtees, as alâo âuch guardians or tutors or orphans or minors, as have been formerly appointed, or âhall at any time hereafter be appointed by the âaid court, to give âecurity to the orphans or minors, by mortgage or bonds, in âuch âums, and with âuch âureties, as the âaid courts âhall think reaâonable..."

  The orphans court dockets for Bedford County are filled with entries in which guardians were named for minor children of a recently deceased man. Such records often provide ages of the children, which become valuable information to genealogists.

  The orphans court laws have not changed very much to the present time. If no executor/executrix was named in the will, or if the deceased died intestate (i.e. without having written and filed a will), then the settlement of the estate is forwarded to and handled by the Clerk of the Orphans Court. (If the county does not have a position of Clerk of the Orphans Court, the estate will usually be settled by the Prothonotary.)

  The court will name a man to serve as the estateĺs Administrator (or a woman to serve as the estateĺs Administratrix), to whom Letters of Administration will be granted. The estate will then be settled.

  In the case of the deceased dying without a will to direct the disposition and distribution of the estate, the Administrator is obligated to search out all known direct-line descendants, and the estate is divided evenly among them all. In the case of a child who may have died previous to the recently deceased parent, that childĺs portion of the estate will be distributed to any children of the previously deceased child. For this reason, the estate records of intestate proceedings are very valuable and useful to a genealogist. As compared to a will, in which only a few of the children of the deceased might be mentioned (depending on the whim of the deceased), in an intestate proceeding all the children will be listed. And on top of that, if any of those children are already deceased, their children will all be listed, in order that the estate might be divided up fairly and evenly among the deceasedĺs survivors.