submitted by Ralph Watkins
In Maryland, the court that oversees the administration of the estates of residents who have died, and also resolves any disputes that arise over wills or estates, is called the Orphans’ Court.
Unlike the judges of all other Maryland courts, Orphans’ Court judges are nominated by the political parties and are not required to be attorneys, except in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Prince George’s County. In three jurisdictions, Harford, Howard, and Montgomery counties, the position of Orphans’ Court judge has been eliminated and those cases are heard by the Circuit Court judges. In all other counties, there are three Orphans’ Court judges, regardless of the population of the county. Accordingly, in the more populous counties the judges work full-time while in the smaller counties the judges’ position is part-time.
In 2021, a Task Force to Study the Maryland Orphans’ Court made recommendations to the General Assembly, including the elimination of partisan elections, lengthening the term from 4 to 8 years, and authorizing the Governor to appoint a judge to fill a vacancy.
The League supports allowing each county to choose whether to keep or eliminate its Orphans’ Court. (In 2022, the Maryland constitution was amended to eliminate the Orphans’ Court judges in Howard County, a change that required approval by both a majority of voters statewide and a majority of Howard County voters.) In addition, the League favors nonpartisan election of Orphans’ Court judges as well as allowing both attorneys and non-attorneys to serve as judges. The League position has also called for a change in the name of the court to more clearly describe its function.