Bucks County Register of Wills Champions Public Access to Records

About Bucks County

Bucks County is one of Pennsylvania’s three original counties, created by the Royal Charter to William Penn in 1682. It was named after Buckinghamshire, England, Penn’s home county. Tucked among the hills in the countryside northeast of Philadelphia and bordered by the Delaware River, the county covers 622 square miles. In 1813, the county seat was moved to Doylestown, where it has remained for more than 200 years.

Register of Wills and Clerk of Courts

The Bucks County office of Register of Wills and Clerk of the Orphans’ Court is responsible for admitting wills to probate, appointing administrators of intestate estates, and collecting inheritance taxes on behalf of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The office also issues marriage licenses and is responsible for processing adoptions.

Millions of Bucks County Historical Documents Now Have A Digital Future

Donald Petrille, Jr., Esquire – Bucks County’s Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans’ Court

Setting the Standard for County Government

Donald Petrille, Jr., Esquire took office in 2012 as Bucks County’s Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans’ Court. Prior to assuming office, Petrille had a private law practice representing small businesses, along with doing estate planning and administration. Having helped individuals and businesses navigate the legal system, he was very familiar with some of the challenges faced when dealing with government processes.

With input from the public and insights from his own experience, Petrille and his staff started working on ways to modernize and streamline procedures in the Bucks County office. Within six months of taking office, new standard operating procedures to improve efficiency were established. These were followed by convenience and modernization efforts. One of the first changes he implemented was accepting credit and debit cards for payment of fees and providing online access to newly filed documents. He also established office hours at a satellite office that served many constituents and made it possible for couples to submit marriage license applications online.

“Government must keep up with business and consumer expectations in a modern economy. People have certain expectations about companies using different technologies to make their lives easier. Government should be no different,” said Petrille.

Three Centuries of Files

The next technological challenge Petrille tackled was expanding public access to the millions of historical county records that the Register of Wills has processed during the past 300-plus years. Responsible for admitting wills to probate, appointing estate administrators, and collecting state inheritance taxes, the Register of Wills office manages more than 6 million paper documents and microfilm images dating back to 1684.

The Register of Wills had these files stored in multiple varied facilities including its main office, at a county-owned warehouse, and at a local museum. When someone needed a document for legal or genealogical research, staff first had to figure out where the documents were stored. If the records were stored off-site, they had to be retrieved and brought to the office. The entire process monopolized scores of hours of staff time and made it extremely difficult for the public to access county records.

“When I was just starting my career as an associate attorney who did some title research, I quickly realized how important it was to be able to access essential records online,” said Petrille. “Now, we have made the records available online for public use. These are the people’s records and we have an obligation to make them accessible.”

IMR Digital Helps Bring History to Life

“We have more than 40 years of experience in helping government agencies and historical societies convert and preserve their records,” said Anthony Parrell, IMR Digital Director of Conversion Services. “When Bucks County approached us about the project, we knew exactly what needed to be done to convert the records into a more easily accessible digital format.”

“The size and scope of this project was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time,” said Parrell. “We’re dealing with all kinds of records ranging from extremely fragile paper records from hundreds of years ago to aging microfilm and oversized bound books with handwritten entries. It was critical that we developed a plan to properly preserve and protect every single item during the digital conversion process.”

IMR Digital’s state-of-the-art, 25,000-square-foot production facility in West Hazleton, Pennsylvania was key to the project’s success. Equipped with the latest conversion technology and a team of highly-trained document conversion specialists, IMR Digital was able to process every historical document for Bucks County. Sophisticated book scanning equipment was used to convert large format documents, like the County’s tax index books, while correcting for curvature to provide a flat image. Originally established as a microfilm processing business, IMR Digital was well-versed in the conversion of film to digital.

All of the records had to be transported from storage locations in Doylestown to IMR Digital’s production facility. To ensure that every document was accounted for, a pre-transport document box inventory was done. During transportation to and from the county office, the delivery vehicle remained securely locked at all times. While in process, the historical documents were securely stored on site.

Making Documents More Accessible

“With the digitized records and our online portal, folks can access the documents they need quickly and easily,” said Petrille. “With the help of IMR Digital, we’ll be adding more and more documents to the portal. Our plan is to release the historical records to the public in an organized manner over a number of months. For instance, we’ll make all the wills from 1628 through 1800 available at one time. This way, researchers will know exactly what information is available.”