Before the Internet, the only way to access official court records was to either visit the courthouse or send a written request for documents to court officials.
While it's now possible to research criminal records, real estate transactions, divorces and civil lawsuits online, anyone needing information concerning wills and probate must still do research the old-fashioned way.
That will soon change.
Within a few months, Allegheny County court officials plan to unveil a search engine to allow the public to access wills and probate records by computer. It will complete the last piece of the Department of Court Records that is not online.
"We believe in transparent government," said Eric Feder, deputy director of the Department of Court Records. "The more access the public has to government records, the better off we all are. It's our philosophy of how government is supposed to work."
The project was initiated about 21/2 years ago by Judge Frank Lucchino, who was the administrative judge at the time.
Mr. Lucchino said it was the state Supreme Court's wish that Pittsburgh follow Philadelphia in having electronic filing and access to the Orphan's Court Division, wills, probate records and inheritance tax records online.
Wills are required to be filed with the courts only if the estate must be probated. Any assets that are not passed from spouse to spouse usually must be probated to prove the will is valid.
Mr. Feder said the Department of Court Records created a steering committee, which included court administrators and members of the Allegheny County Bar Association's probate section. One key issue the committee considered was what documents and what types of cases should be open to online access.
"We reached a consensus that a will is a public document and should be viewable on the Internet," Mr. Feder said.
"Every time we put documents on the Internet, there's a balancing act. People want transparent government, and we try to balance that against the privacy rights of people who are using the court system."
For that reason, certain documents that are usually contained within a last will and testament will not be viewable online unless the researcher is a party to the case. Those include the inventory that describes in detail all the assets of the estate and the inheritance tax return, which is filed with the state for tax purposes.
While both of those documents are public records and anyone can visit the courthouse to request them, Mr. Feder said placing the sensitive financial documents online would make it too easy for people to access them for fraudulent reasons.
"We understand the balance between transparent government and privacy concerns, and that's the struggle," Mr. Feder said.
Some documents, such as adoption and civil commitment records, are always sealed. On rare occasions, families petition the court to restrict the public from viewing any portion of a deceased person's will.
One example is former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. His last will and testament was sealed by court order shortly after his death in 1988 due to the possibility that ongoing business deals could be compromised if the inventory of his assets were made public.
The cost of the online project -- estimated at $500,000 -- was paid for by court filing fees.
The online system will allow the public to access wills dating as far back as 1996. It also will allow attorneys and the general public to file official documents electronically for probate and in the Orphan's Court Division and the state Inheritance Tax Division.
A handful of local attorneys have agreed to file their cases electronically in probate and the Orphan's Court Division as part of a beta test. Mr. Feder said, depending on how well the beta test goes, the public may have access in a month or two.
Eventually, Mr. Feder said, couples will be able to apply online for marriage licenses.
However, they will still be required to come to the courthouse to be sworn in. Executors and administrators of estates will also still have to go there for swearing in.
Tim Grant: email@example.com or 412-263-1591.