The Orphans’ Court is Maryland’s probate court and presides over the administration of estates. In simpler terms, the main job of the Orphans’ Court is to supervise the management of estates of people who have died – with or without a Will – while owning property in their sole name. It has authority to direct the conduct of personal representatives, has jurisdiction over the guardianship of the property of minors and in some counties, appoints guardians of minors.
A person who dies is known legally as a “decedent.” When a decedent owned property that does not otherwise pass to a beneficiary as a result of operation of law such as jointly owned property or property held in trust (such assets are sometimes referred to as “probate” assets), an estate must be opened. The estate might consist for example of a car, boat, jewelry/heirlooms, cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, real estate or various types of business interests. The value of the estate may be just a few hundred dollars or it may be several million. The point is that when a decedent dies owning assets that do not otherwise automatically pass to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs, Maryland laws provide for an orderly process to transfer those assets. This process is sometimes referred to as “the probate proceedings”.
When a person dies with a Last Will and Testament, that Will must be filed with the Register of Wills’ office in the jurisdiction where the decedent lived. The Will generally names the person who will handle the decedent’s final affairs and lists how beneficiaries are to receive distributions from the estate.
If the decedent dies without a Will, that is, “intestate,” Maryland laws provide who has the highest priority to be appointed to administer the estate and who is entitled to inherit in what amounts.
Whether or not there is a Will, when there are probate assets (assets in the decedent’s sole name), a person – referred to as a personal representative – must be appointed to administer the estate. The personal representative is responsible for identifying the decedent’s assets, ensuring that any final debts are valid, paying administration expenses and taxes from the estate, and distributing remaining assets to the proper beneficiaries if there is a Will, or to legal heirs if there is no Will.
Some estates may qualify for a streamlined procedure called “modified estate administration,” in which the personal representative may make final distribution to the heirs and legatees within twelve months from the time he was appointed.
In all other estate proceedings (“regular estates”), a personal representative must file an inventory with the Register of Wills. This inventory is a list that includes the nature and value of the probate assets. Within nine months of his or her appointment, the personal representative must file an administration account to show what the decedent owned at death, what was received since death, what payments were made from the estate, and what distributions are expected to be made to the beneficiaries or legal heirs. After that, an administration account must be filed every six months until the estate is closed. Generally, unless there is litigation involved or real estate needs to be sold, most estates are able to be wrapped up within nine to eighteen months of the decedent’s death.
Orphans’ Court Judges
Orphans’ Court judges are responsible for approving administration accounts, making sure that only appropriate payments are made from estate assets and that distributions are made to the proper beneficiaries or heirs. Generally, payment of attorney’s fees or personal representative’s commissions made from estate assets must be approved by the Orphans’ Court.
Three Orphans’ Court judges sit in the City of Baltimore and each of Maryland’s counties, except Harford and Montgomery counties. (In those two counties, Circuit Court judges sit as Orphans’ Court judges.) Orphans’ Court judges run for general election every four years. Maryland’s Constitution requires Orphans’ Court judges to be Maryland citizens and residents of their jurisdiction for at least 12 months before their election. The Constitution was amended to require the judges in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County to be attorneys and barred in the State of Maryland. Those judges may preside over cases alone, whereas in the other jurisdictions, the three judges sit together in a panel to hear matters.
Some estates proceed smoothly, and, other than seeing the Orphans’ Court judge’s signature on various estate documents, a personal representative and/or beneficiaries or heirs may have no direct contact with the Orphans’ Court judges.
In other estates, however, disputes arise, and then Orphans’ Court judges hold formal hearings. Examples of reasons for formal hearings include when the Orphans’ Court has to determine: the validity of a particular Will or Codicil (which is an amendment to the original Will); proper beneficiaries or heirs and/or amounts to be distributed to them; who should be appointed personal representative; whether to remove a personal representative who has not properly carried out his or her duties; or what claims (and amounts) may be paid from the estate. Sometimes there are disputes concerning payments to be made to the personal representative or estate attorney.
In formal hearings, the Orphans’ Court judges – like any other trial court judges – must consider the evidence submitted (including testimony) and apply the appropriate Maryland laws in order to resolve the dispute.
If a distribution from an estate is due to be made to a minor and there is no other procedure in place to protect the assets until the minor reaches the age of 18 (such as a trust), the Orphans’ Court has jurisdiction to appoint someone as guardian of the person and/or property of the minor. In such cases the guardian is under the supervision of the Orphans’ Court and where the assets due to the minor are $10,000 or more, the guardian must file annual reports with the Orphans’ Court.