Registers of Wills Institute Temporary Virtual Probate Procedures in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic


In response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared a general, statewide judicial emergency and ordered the closure of Pennsylvania courts to the public, except for specific emergency matters. As a result, the Registers of Wills across the Commonwealth, who also serve as the Clerks of the Orphans’ Courts, have only been accepting emergency petitions for guardianships of incapacitated adults and emergency petitions for medical or end-of-life decision making authority.

Due to the Court closure and the implementation of social distancing and stay at home orders, the Registers of Wills have been unable to open probate for decedent’s estates. Under Pennsylvania law, a person seeking to become the Executor or Administrator of a decedent’s estate must take an oath and be sworn into that fiduciary role by the Register of Wills of the county where the decedent lived at the time of death. This procedure requires an in-person appearance at the Register of Wills office by the Executor or Administrator to take this oath and complete the necessary paperwork to open probate.

Beginning the week of March 31, 2020, several local Registers of Wills began implementing temporary procedures to allow for the use of videoconferencing to administer the oath to Executors and Administrators for purposes of opening probate during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The exact procedures vary by county, but typically involve the submission of the following documents via email or other electronic method to the Register of Wills office:
•    Petition for Probate;
•    Death Certificate;
•    Will (if applicable);
•    A photocopy of the Executor’s or Administrator’s government-issued ID (driver’s license, passport, etc.); and
•    Any additional necessary documents, such as Renunciations and/or Oaths of Subscribing Witnesses, if necessary (and many Registers of Wills require photocopies of the IDs for the individuals executing these documents as well).

Once the necessary documents have been submitted electronically, arrangements must be made pursuant to each county’s policy for a video conference call (using Zoom, Skype, Facetime, or another typical video conference service) between the Executor or Administrator, attorney, and the Register of Wills office. The Register will administer the oath to the Executor or Administrator and witness him or her sign the Petition for Probate by video. The original documents and payment of the probate fee would then be submitted to the Register of Wills office, where they will be processed and short certificates will be issued to the Executor or Administrator.

It is important to note that the temporary virtual probate procedures outlined above are to be used only for routine probate openings. Probate procedures such as the probate of a photocopy of a Will or a probate procedure requiring a hearing before the Register of Wills prior to the issuance of Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration cannot be handled using the temporary virtual probate procedures.

As of April 2, 2020, the Registers of Wills of Bucks County, Lehigh County, and Northampton County in the local area have implemented procedures for temporary virtual probate. Philadelphia County, Montgomery County, Delaware County, and Chester County have not yet established such procedures as of this writing. It is recommended that anyone interested in opening an estate during the COVID-19 review the Register of Wills website for the county the decedent lived in at the time of his or her death and consult with counsel for the most current information about the Register of Wills’ policy for that county.