Monday, October 22, 2007

PA S. Ct. Creates Orphans' Ct. Advisory Cte.

On October 17, 2007, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced creation of an Ad Hoc Advisory Committee to the Orphans' Court Procedural Rules Committee, and the appointment of eight experienced O.C. Judges "to review comprehensive statewide rules" affecting Orphans' Court matters.

The press release issued by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is entitled "
Advisory Group of Orphans' Court judges Created to Review Comprehensive Statewide Rules".

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania today announced that it will tap the knowledge of an eight-member working group of experienced judges from across the Commonwealth to enhance procedures for adoptions, guardianships, wills and other Orphans' Court matters.

The Orphans' Court Procedural Rules Committee is undertaking a substantial review of current rules governing statewide practice and procedure in Orphans' Court.

The newly created Ad Hoc Advisory Committee to the Orphans' Court Procedural Rules Committee will provide valuable input as the Orphans' Court Committee considers the feasibility and practical need for comprehensive statewide Orphans' Court rules. * * *
Judges of various PA Orphans' Court divisions who were appointed to serve on the new Ad Hoc Advisory Committee include:
A few newspapers reported issuance of the Press Release:

The creation of this Ad Hoc Advisory Committee, its staffing with experienced Orphans' Court trial judges, and its charge to provide a comprehensive review & reliable input to the PA Orphans' Court Procedural Rules Committee, now evidence a significant, renewed commitment by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to this division of the county courts.

According to "A History of Pennsylvania Courts", the Orphans' Court in the Commonwealth was first authorized in 1776. See: "Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1776". In 1968, by constitutional amendment, that separate court became a division of the various courts of common pleas.

The orphans' court divisions, derived from courts of "equity", protect special constituencies, according to an "Orphans' Court Description" posted by the Philadelphia Courts:
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. * * *

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. * * *

The jurisdiction of the Orphans' Court Division within the Court of Common Pleas is now set by statute, in Title 20 of PA Consolidated Statutes (the "PA Probate, Estates & Fiduciaries Code"). Mandatory jurisdiction is set forth in Section 711; and non-mandatory jurisdiction is set forth in Section 712.

The cases filed in the orphans' court divisions likely will increase, both in number & complexity, following trends observed in Pennsylvania's aging population.
See: PA EE&F Law Blog postings PA's "2020 VISION" Project: Part I (02/22/07) & PA's "2020 VISION" Project: Part II (02/23/07).

This caseload likely will expand due to increasing elder abuse, contested capacity issues, oversight of charitable organizations, recent legislative enactments on health care directives, durable powers of attorney, & trusts, and anticipated further legislative reforms of guardianships, disposition of remains, alternative dispute resolution, & related privacy issues.

Indeed, in the past two years, the PA Supreme Court Orphans' Court Rules Committee has been extremely active, a
ccording to its posted Docket of Activities. Most of these developments have been reported on this Blog (See: Blog Label "Orphans' Court Practice").

I have advocated for greater attention by the PA Supreme Court to the Orphans' Court Division. I offered some ideas for study. See: PA EE&F Law Blog postings "In the State of PA's Courts, Where is the OC?" (06/05/07).

The recent Press Release confirms the need for changes and the sweep of the issues that can be addressed:
"This is a large and complicated task, so it only makes sense to draw on the unique insight of those with a wide variety of experience and understanding of this intensely personal and multifaceted area of court practice," Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ralph J. Cappy said.

"The intent here is to simplify the current system and standardize governing procedures so everyone has a clearer idea of what is expected and better outcomes are realized for the citizens of Pennsylvania."

The Orphans' Court divisions of the Courts of Common Pleas typically handle adoptions, guardianships of minors and incapacitated persons, oversight of estate and trust administration, contested wills and disputes over the appointment and removal of fiduciaries - or those accountable to the court for administering a trust or estate.

The proposed rules review is intended to:
  • Promote standardization of statewide practice and reduce variations caused by reliance on local practice.
  • Provide better direction to practitioners and judges throughout the state, especially in counties without dedicated Orphans' Court divisions.
  • Clarify certain procedures involving citation practice and pleadings.
  • Harmonize Orphans' Court proceedings with general civil practice to the extent possible, given the unique subject matter within Orphans' Court jurisdiction.
I am pleased -- as should be any Pennsylvania Orphans' Court practitioner -- that greater attention will be paid to this specialized court division, by such highly qualified judges.

Their efforts should be supported by practitioners, perhaps through input offered by our bar association practice sections.