What is the Pennsylvania Probate Process?

gavel and Probate Court document concept

If a family member or loved one has passed away, you may be facing the prospect of taking their estate through probate. Here’s how the probate process in PA works, with or without a will, and what you can expect from the Pennsylvania probate court.

What the Probate Process in PA Looks Like

“Probate” is the legal word for the process courts use to distribute a person’s estate after they die. If a person dies in Pennsylvania owning any assets in their own name, their estate must be “probated.” The idea of going to probate court may be intimidating. However, with the help of one of the experienced estate administration attorneys at Berman & Associates, you and your family can resolve your loved one’s estate promptly, and without anxiety.

Probating a Will in Pennsylvania

Once you have located your loved one’s will, the Pennsylvania probate process is broken down into seven steps:

Step 1: Appoint an Executor

As soon as a probate estate is opened, the Pennsylvania probate court will name an executor to oversee the estate administration. The executor is normally named in the will itself. The court will issue Letters of Testamentary (called Letters of Administration if there is no will) and Short Certificates. These documents give the executor the authority to act on behalf of the estate, including communicating with banks and creditors.

Step 2: Authenticate the Will

Next, the Pennsylvania probate court will review the will to be sure all the technical requirements are met. Specifically, the court will look for witnesses’ and a notary’s signature. If no notary signed the document, the witnesses must attend Orphan Court and authenticate their own signatures, and the signature of the deceased.

Step 3: Notification of Beneficiaries, Heirs, and Creditors

The executor’s first job is to review the will and the deceased’s family tree, and notify each beneficiary or potential heir of their interest in the estate. These beneficiaries are also entitled to a copy of the will. The executor must also publish legal notices in local newspapers. This serves as notice to creditors against the estate, starting a one-year clock for them to file claims against the estate and collect their debts.

Step 4: Inventory the Assets

Next, the executor must identify all the assets in the estate, liquidate them as needed, and include them in an inventory filed with the court. Part of this step includes identifying “non-probate assets” such as joint bank accounts, homes held as joint tenants, or insurance policies with designated beneficiaries. These non-probate assets will pass to the person named in the title or beneficiary designation automatically, without court oversight.

Step 5: Calculation of Estate and Inheritance Taxes

Once the executor knows how valuable the estate is, and how much each beneficiary will receive, they can calculate the taxes the estate will need to pay. Unless you come from a wealthy family, your loved one’s estate likely will not reach the federal estate tax exemption (currently $11.7 million for individuals and $23.4 million for married couples in 2021).

However, while Pennsylvania does not have its own estate tax, the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax applies to all assets – even non-probate assets – that pass to another person upon the death of the asset holder. The amount depends on the value of the estate, and the relationship each beneficiary had to the deceased. The executor can save the estate 5% by prepaying these taxes within 90 days of the deceased’s death.

Step 6: Payment of Debts

Most estates include at least some debt. Funeral expenses, final medical costs, credit card balances, mortgages, and other obligations all must be satisfied as part of the probate process. Your estate administration attorney’s fees are also paid out of the estate.

Step 6: Resolve Will Disputes

Sometimes a named beneficiary, omitted beneficiary (such as a younger sibling to children included in the will), or natural heir chooses to file a will challenge lawsuit. They may question the validity of the will, or that the deceased was in a proper state of mind when signing it. These will disputes must be resolved before the estate can be fully administered.

Step 7: Final Accounting and Distribution of Assets

Once all the debts are paid and the beneficiaries are finalized, the executor may submit a final accounting to the court. When the family comes together and agrees on that distribution, the estate administration attorney assisting the executor can prepare a Family Settlement Agreement that describes who receives what inheritance. Then the executor can distribute the deceased’s assets according to the terms of the will, or according to the Family Settlement Agreement. Less often, the Pennsylvania probate court will step in to resolve any disagreements that can’t be settled based on the language of the will. That is why it is important to have a knowledgeable estate planning attorney assist in drafting the will, to make sure everything is clear and your estate is distributed as intended.

Probate in PA Without a Will

If your loved one died without a will, their case is considered “intestate.” Pennsylvania intestacy laws establish a default structure for how the deceased’s property will be divided up and distributed among that person’s legal heirs. If you probate a loved one’s estate and either they don’t have a will, or the will is invalid, then the Pennsylvania probate process will also include:

  • Identifying the natural and legal heirs of the deceased
  • Resolving any disputes about paternity
  • Dividing assets according to the PA intestate succession laws

Probating an intestate estate can be more complicated than administering a will. It requires the executor to take additional steps. It may also involve liquidating all the deceased’s assets, rather than passing the deceased’s house, vehicle, or other valuables to specific beneficiaries.

At Berman & Associates, our experienced estate administration attorneys have been helping families through the Pennsylvania probate process for decades. Whether your loved one left a will or not, we can help you through the steps and make sure all the right heirs and beneficiaries receive their fair shares. We welcome you to contact us to schedule a consultation with an experienced Pennsylvania estate planning attorney, so we can start working for you and your family.

Categories: Estate Planning