Washington County began keeping probate records from the time it was created in 1777, through the Orphans’ Court. Like much of the legal structure in Maryland, the Orphans’ Court’s existence had its origins in England. The Orphans’ Court owes its name, confusing to the 21st century mind, to the fact that the children of deceased male landowners were considered orphans when the father died. They were the persons for whom the “orphans’ court” legal system was developed, to protect their inheritance interests.

Orphans’ Courts were unknown in provincial Maryland and were first created in Maryland under the Acts of 1777. They were to be established in each county and served by a Register of Wills. The initial act established that in contested cases, the parties were entitled to file their actions in courts of general jurisdiction–the then general court, the chancery court, or the county court. In 1851, the judges of the Orphans’ Court became constitutional judges.

If a minor child or a family member deemed incompetent and dependent had an interest in an estate, you may find guardianship papers included in the probate file. In addition, the guardian may have needed to post a bond equaling the value of the inheritance.

When may the Orphans’ Court appoint a Guardian?

If property passes to a minor (a person under the age of 18) and there is no other provision under the Will protecting the property, the Orphans’ Court may appoint someone to serve as Guardian for the property of the minor. If the assets exceeded a certain dollar amount, annual reports were required to be filed with the Court and a bond was required.

The Orphans’ Court, under certain circumstances, also appointed someone Guardian of the person of the minor. In these cases, the Guardian was responsible for caring for the minor and making decisions regarding health care and education.

The Circuit Courts also have jurisdiction to appoint Guardians of the person and property of minors.

The Orphans’ Court does not have jurisdiction over adult disabled persons

Guardian and Ward Dockets, 1785-1986

These records serve as an index to the variety of guardianship documents being filed on behalf of a guardian for a minor. Information shown include, the name of the guardian, name of the minor, and date of appointment of the guardian; these records also have columns showing in which Liber (book) and Folio (page) the bond record, annual appraisements, and guardian accounts appear. Use these as an index for the other guardianship documents. They are in alphabetical order by the first letter of the surname. Family groups normally are kept together.

General Index to Guardians and Wards 1890-1960

The general index includes the docket Liber and Folio, Bond Liber and Folio, and Annual Appropriation Liber and Folio; it also includes the name of the guardian, the ward, date of birth of ward, appointment date of guardianship, and the various account books containing records for the guardianship.

Guardian Accounts 1787-1957

Guardian Accounts for 1818-1852, Books E-R are not yet available online.

Guardian accounts provided a method for the Orphans’ Court to require accountability of the larger guardianships, and insure that the monies were being handled properly, and in the welfare interest of the minors. They were an annual occurrence for the guardian until the child reached the age of majority.

Guardian Bonds 1778-1970

Administrators, and at times executors, of estates may have been required to post a bond that would cover the value of the estate to protect the heirs from misconduct. Bondsmen were typically close family members, so these are important documents.