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Orphans' Court

Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County
Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania

There are four divisions in the Court of Common Pleas of the Fifth Judicial District: Civil, Criminal, Family, and Orphans’ (also referred to as Probate Court in many states other than Pennsylvania).  The Orphans' Court Division deals with Probate, Estates, and Fiduciaries issues. According to the Allegheny County Orphans’ Court website, “the cases that are heard in the Orphans' Court Division include all matters involving decedent's estates, trusts, wills, guardians of the persons and estates of minors, guardians of the persons and estates of incapacitated persons, powers of attorney, termination of parental rights and adoptions, civil commitments, marriage licenses, nonprofit associations and corporations, and inheritance and estate tax matters.”

Ideally, an estate plan that is well thought out and professionally drafted will negate the need to go to court, saving the estate and its beneficiaries a good deal of money. At the very least, every adult should have a will, a power of attorney, and a health care power of attorney/living will. If there are minor dependents, a person to act as “guardian of the person” and a person or institution to look after the assets going to the minor should be included in these documents. Although Pennsylvania statutes dictate how the assets of a person who dies intestate (without a will) will be distributed, the Orphans’ Court will appoint a “guardian of the person” of a minor child if one is not designated in an estate plan (thus the name Orphans’ Court). Not just restricted to minor children, the Court also appoints guardians for individuals who are incapacitated due to age or disability if no one has been designated or is unable to fulfill the role (e.g., no power of attorney is in place). Other cases that may be heard in Orphans’ Court include, among others, contesting of a will, adoptions, involuntary commitment under Section 302 of the Mental Health Procedures Act, and having someone declared incompetent.

Orphans' Court Mediation

As of September 1, 2016, Pennsylvania Orphans’ Court Rule 1.6 establishes an Orphans’ Court Mediation Program: “All parties having an interest in a matter may participate by written agreement, or the court by local rule or order in a particular matter may provide for the parties to participate, in private mediation or in court-supervised mediation.” Some counties in Pennsylvania have already adopted new Local Rules governing their respective Orphans’ Court Mediation Program.

Mediation is an effective means of dispute resolution and typically is less costly than litigation. Even if a case is not settled, mediation frequently helps the parties narrow the issues that need to be tried in court. 

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