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The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland -- Part 2: The Records
Volume 546, Page 7   View pdf image (33K)
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During the colonial period, the settlement of the estates of deceased persons was under
the jurisdiction of a central probate court called the Prerogative Court. The presiding officer
of the court was known as the Commissary General. He appointed a deputy commissary in
each county to handle the routine details involved in settling estates. The records of the
Prerogative Court have been well preserved and are now available at the Hall of Records. A
study of this court and list of its records appears in Land Office and Prerogative Court
Records of Colonial Maryland by Elisabeth Hartsook and Gust Skordas. (Annapolis, 1946.
Publication No. 4 of the Hall of Records Commission.)

Although the Constitution of 1776 provided for the appointment of a register of wills
in each county, it made no other provision for the administration of probate matters. This
omission was remedied by Chapter 8 of the Acts of February 1777, which abolished the office
of Commissary General and established an orphans' court in each county with the same
powers and duties within their several counties that were previously exercised by the Com-
missary General. This included taking probate of wills, granting letters testamentary or letters
of administration, appointing appraisers of estates, passing the accounts of executors and
administrators, appointing guardians and in general protecting the rights of legatees and

The register of wills served as clerk of the orphans' court. He recorded the proceedings
of the court and the wills, inventories, accounts and other papers filed in the process of settling
estates. He was also authorized to perform certain routine duties when court was not in

Originally, five to seven justices of the peace were commissioned by the Governor as
justices of the orphans' court. In 1790, the number of justices was reduced to three to be
appointed from any of the residents of the county. The register of wills was also appointed
by the Governor until 1851 when both offices were made elective.

The powers and responsibilities of the orphans' courts and the registers of wills have
remained about the same from the time they were created. Even the Act of 1798 which re-
pealed all prior laws and recodified the entire body of testamentary law did not make any
major changes. It has served as the basic law in probate matters ever since. Subsequent
legislation has tended to bestow increased authority upon the register of wills during the
recess of the orphans' court, but otherwise has not greatly affected the jurisdiction of the court.


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The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland -- Part 2: The Records
Volume 546, Page 7   View pdf image (33K)
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