Your City Defined: Register of Wills

What a RoW does, what Orphans’ Court is, and what Tracey Gordon, currently in the role, may have done to help herself out of a job

Your City Defined: Register of Wills

What a RoW does, what Orphans’ Court is, and what Tracey Gordon, currently in the role, may have done to help herself out of a job

For many years, I did not get the following joke from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (in fairness, I was less than 10 when the movie came out, but also in fairness, I didn’t get the joke until I wrote this article):

Eddie Valiant: (to Dolores) Maybe you could go downtown and check the probate courts.

Roger Rabbit: Check the probate! Why my uncle Thumper had a problem with his probate and he had to take these big pills and drink lots of water.

Eddie Valiant: Not prostate, you idiot! Probate!

This whole scene, if you remember the movie, revolves around validating Marvin Acme’s will. And there you go, we’ve now learned about the role of Register of Wills from Roger Rabbit.

In a few days here, Philadelphians will be electing a new Register of Wills (RoW). (Don’t even get me started on the idiocy of electing this role.) Before we chat about why we need a new one so badly, let’s look at what this position actually entails.

The Register (which is how they’re addressed, by the way — Madame Register and First Gentleman Register of Philadelphia, I assume) oversees the validation and execution of wills. Simple enough. The position does come with a secondary title, that of Clerk of the Orphans’ Court. Which sounds like a more depressing job. In fact, it all sounds like a depressing job. All day you’re either dealing with dead people or orphans.

But Orphans’ Court doesn’t actually refer to Dickensian orphans. It’s a specific legal term. Back in ye olden times of English inheritance laws, anytime landowners died, their children were legally considered orphans. (I’m sorry, I meant: Anytime a male landowner died, his male children were considered orphans. Mothers and daughters were not a thing, legally speaking.) But now you can see the connection to the Register of Wills. Old-timey Orphans’ Courts settled issues of inheritances.

The greater part of RoW responsibilities involves issuing marriage licenses, keeping license records and executing wills.

Our current Register of Wills is Tracey Gordon. Gordon won a surprise victory against the former Register of more than 40 years in 2019. If you were to describe her single term in office as “smooth sailing” or “not full of lawsuits,” you’d be wrong. We should, however, acknowledge that Gordon did take on the tangled issue of tangled titles in the city.

What is a tangled title?

Let’s say a person owns a property, but they die without leaving a will. It’s tangled.

Or they do leave a will, but the paperwork isn’t done correctly. Tangled.

A fraudulent property deed counts as tangled, as well as rent-to-own agreements that “go wrong.” “Twisted,” you might say.

There are currently more than 10,000 of these tangled titles, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, which constitutes a small crisis in the city. Gordon made it her flagship effort to streamline these disruptive situations into something more manageable. If you qualified, you could even benefit from the city’s Probate Deferment Initiative (PDI), which “connects low- and middle-income residents with resources (free counsel, waived fees, etc.) needed to untangle their homes’ titles.”

And Gordon made a strong push to educate Philadelphians about the issues her office deals with. Let’s just say she wasn’t shy in front of the microphones. She started the YouTube Channel: PHLROW, which besides having brilliant PSAs, features the cleverly named Will Power Radio Show, as well as The Register Reacts (where Gordon does YouTuber-style reaction commentary on things like inheritance tax and estate planning while watching The Shawshank Redemption and Modern Family).

From the featured PSA on PHLROW:

Grandma: I’ll make a will when I’m ready!

19-year-old: Okay, okay, I’m just thinking about what happened at Miss Angela’s house down the street. After she passed, the family fought so much they lost the house. Is that going to happen to our house, too?

Here, Grandma gives the boy some major side-eye. Because what all seniors love is grandkids whose main concern in the event of their death is tangled estate disputes.

All PSAs aside, addressing a serious issue that affects tens of thousands of Philadelphians is an admirable priority.

Why the current Register of Wills is not on the ballot

People started noticing that everything wasn’t copacetic when Gordon was caught on a hot mic during a City Council Zoom meeting. She was there in April 2022 to ask for an extra $125,000 for the aforementioned Probate Deferment Initiative. At Large Councilmember Isaiah Thomas began grilling her on the numbers, since it appeared only 14 Philadelphians had benefited from the program in the previous year. Gordon did not like that.

“This guy is horrible,” she announced into her still-live microphone. “Fuck him.”

Now, to be fair, that’s what every person says during unpleasant Zoom meetings; most just make sure their mics are muted first. “I had a private moment that was public,” Gordon later said, “I am a passionate person, but that is no excuse for the language that was heard over my mic.”

Gordon went from getting fired in 2014 for ethics violations to running the RoW department five years later … So this is kinda on us, Philly.

But then Gordon started ending up in the spotlight for things that weren’t quite so hilarious. According to multiple lawsuits former employees have filed against her, Madame Register appears to have a penchant for pressuring RoW employees to contribute to her campaigns.

One former clerk’s suit alleges that refusing to make donations or to buy tickets to Gordon’s campaign events got him fired. He says management told him, “Gordon would terminate him if he didn’t contribute as directed.” He didn’t, and he was let go soon after. This clerk’s supervisor (also fired, also suing) confirmed that the clerk and another man in the office were indeed axed for refusal to make donations. “100% confident,” goes his sworn statement.

It gets even more extra

The RoW employee tasked with answering media inquiries over these lawsuits was then himself fired. Why? Because, again, according to his lawsuit, he also had refused to contribute to Gordon’s spring campaign. Gordon might have stopped to ask herself why no one naturally had faith in her, or why no less than three Democrats stepped forward to challenge an incumbent. Might have. Instead …

“Gordon frequently ordered [me] to perform personal tasks unrelated to [my] job, and attempted to coerce [me] into making false statements to the press,” added the fourth litigant.

I’m sorry, did I say four litigants? Make that five.

A fifth federal lawsuit was just filed by an administrative deputy alleging that Gordon “continuously and relentlessly badgered me” for campaign donations.

Adding to this ignominious list, last year, Gordon let her daughter set up shop in her office to sell Super Bowl merch, and then ordered HR to encourage RoW employees to make purchases. And even before she became the Register, as a deputy city commissioner. Gordon was fined $2,201 by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics when they found her guilty of money solicitation of employees and prohibited political activity. (That last one — posting political messages on Facebook — got her government-issued laptop impounded.)

Gordon went from getting fired in 2014 for ethics violations to running the RoW department five years later … So this is kinda on us, Philly.

With Gordon out of the race, the competition for the Register’s crown falls to either John Sabatina (D), or Linwood Holland (R).

Sabatina is an Army veteran, Northeast ward leader and retired estate attorney. He’s the only candidate who has a professional background specifically dealing with wills and estates. “I have handled and/or acted as Administrator in more than 70 estates,” he told the Committee of Seventy. Sabatina is making the digitization of all RoW documents (current and archival) his main priority, as well as “restoring public trust after four years of corruption.”

Holland’s priorities, on the other hand, are anyone’s guess, as he doesn’t appear to be answering media inquiries. He’s also a veteran (Navy), and a Registered Community Organizer for the 35th Ward. Holland seems to have a professional background in administrative roles ranging from Temple University to the pharmaceutical industry, but nothing that leaps out as RoW-specific.

Whichever vote you cast, just make sure to cast it by or on next Tuesday, November 7.


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