A Guide to the Pennsylvania Probate Process

close up of a probate court document and gavel - Pennsylvania Probate Process concept

Losing a loved one can be overwhelming. Not only might you be experiencing emotional grief and anguish, but you may also face the stress of having to go through the Pennsylvania probate process. These legal proceedings may take up to nine months or more to complete, depending upon the complexity of the decedent’s estate. Specifically, the probate process is meant to ensure that the decedent’s debts and taxes are satisfied — and property is distributed to beneficiaries.

The following guide to Pennsylvania probate explains the basic steps in the legal process and helps provide an idea of what family members should expect.

What is Probate?

Probate is the legal process that determines how a decedent’s property and assets are distributed after they pass away. In Pennsylvania, probate is necessary regardless of whether there is a valid will in place or not. If the deceased person named an executor for their estate in their last will and testament, that individual may be responsible for overseeing the process and ensuring the terms of the will are carried out. Absent a will, a personal representative must be appointed by the court to administer the estate.

What Happens if You Pass Away Without a Will?

If an individual passes away without a will, the distribution of their estate must be determined by Pennsylvania’s intestate succession law. Although the outcome must still be determined through the Pennsylvania probate process, the results may not be what the decedent had intended — which is why it is always best to draft a will. The intestate laws will also govern how an estate should be administered if the will is found to be invalid.

Under Pennsylvania’s intestate succession law, a spouse will take the entire estate if the decedent is married and there are no children. If the decedent was married and has children, the spouse takes a specific share, and the rest is divided among the children. Parents of a decedent will inherit all of the estate if they were not married and had no children. In the event the decedent has children but their spouse has passed, the children will receive equal portions of the estate.

Other rules apply if the above family members predeceased the decedent or are disqualified from taking a share of the estate. For instance, there may be circumstances under which grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, or nephews can inherit. If there are no surviving kin of the decedent, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania collects the proceeds of the estate.

What Are the Steps in the Pennsylvania Probate Process?

Usually, the person who was named executor in the decedent’s last will and testament will begin the Pennsylvania probate process by opening the decedent’s estate. If there was no will, a family member may seek Letters of Administration to be appointed as the administrator of their loved one’s estate. Both an executor and administrator serve the same role — the only difference is that an executor is selected by the decedent while an administrator is appointed by the court.

Even though every estate is different, the Pennsylvania probate process typically follows the same series of steps in every case, including the following:

  • Locate the decedent’s will — While the decedent’s will must be filed with the probate court, it may first be necessary to locate it. A decedent’s will may be located in their home, office, or in a safe deposit box. The will must be authenticated by the court as part of the probate process.
  • File a petition for probate with the court — To commence the probate process, a petition must be filed in the Orphan’s court in the county where the decedent resided. There is no statutory deadline to file for probate. However, an inheritance tax must be paid within nine months after the decedent’s passing, unless an extension is filed.
  • Notify beneficiaries and creditors — All beneficiaries named in the will, or heirs if there is no will, must be notified about the estate being opened. The executor or administrator must also publish legal notices to advise creditors about the probate process. Identify the decedent’s assets and debts — An inventory must be taken of the decedent’s assets, property, and debts. This may require reviewing the will, going through the decedent’s financial documents, reviewing any type of real property, investments, automobiles, accessing bank accounts, et cetera.
  • Pay the estate’s debts — If the assets in the estate are insufficient to pay all debts, Pennsylvania law specifies the order in which they must be paid based on priority.
  • Distribute the assets and property in the estate — After all debts and taxes have been paid, the remaining estate assets will be distributed to the decedent’s beneficiaries as specified in the will, or by intestate law if there was no will.

Significantly, the executor or administrator of an estate will have a number of other essential duties that must be carried out during the Pennsylvania probate process. Certain estates may also have unique situations that must be handled. In addition, complex issues can arise if the will is contested before or after the will has been admitted to probate.

Using the Simplified Probate Process

Not every estate may be large enough to warrant the need for formal probate. Accordingly, Pennsylvania allows for a simplified probate process if the total amount of the decedent’s personal property is $50,000 or less. This amount does not include certain assets, such as real estate, vehicles, or funeral costs.

To utilize the simplified probate process, the executor of the decedent’s estate must file a written request with the probate court. While the decedent’s wishes outlined in their will must still be carried out, this procedure can be an efficient and cost-effective way of administering a small estate. Additionally, Pennsylvania’s simplified probate process allows financial institutions to release up to $10,000 to the decedent’s family members without the probate court’s approval — provided funeral expenses have been paid.

Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Probate Attorney

The Pennsylvania probate process can be complicated. It’s essential to have a skilled probate attorney who can help you navigate the process. Located in Exeter, Pennsylvania, The Kulick Law Firm offers knowledgeable counsel and high-quality legal services to clients in Northeastern Pennsylvania for a wide variety of probate and estate planning matters. Call (570) 203-2756 or contact us online to schedule a consultation to learn more about how we can assist you.