What Happens When You Die Without a Will in Pennsylvania?

inventory of estate assets to avoid dying without a will

When a family member or loved one dies without a will, it can leave you scrambling to determine what to do with their property and assets. Pennsylvania has laws that control who will inherit if someone dies without a will. However, dying without a will can be complicated, and knowing what property is included, along with understanding who the property should go to, can be confusing.

What Happens if You Die Without a Will in Pennsylvania?

Dying without a will leaves your family guessing about how you meant your affairs to be handled after your death. However, Pennsylvania law uses “intestate” laws to eliminate the guesswork. These laws operate as a kind of default estate plan that apply whenever someone dies without a will. Generally speaking, intestate laws divide that person’s assets between their closest living relatives. Berman & Associates’ estate planning attorneys can help you identify those relatives and apply the state’s intestate laws so that the right family members receive assets after a loved one dies without a will.

Property Transfers That Don’t Follow Intestate Law

Some property doesn’t pass through the intestate process at all, even when dying without a will. These types of non-probate properties have their own rules for how the assets are passed down:

  • Real property titled as a “joint tenancy” or “tenancy by the entirety”
  • Property or accounts held jointly with another person
  • Property transferred into a trust during the person’s lifetime
  • Life insurance proceeds
  • Retirement account funds (such as 401(k)s and IRAs)
  • Transfer-on-Death security accounts
  • Payable-on-Death bank accounts

For financial accounts and insurance, most often, the bank, financial institution, or insurance company holding these accounts will require the account holder to complete a beneficiary designation form indicating who should receive the funds upon their death. The value of the life insurance policy, or the balances of the accounts automatically transfer to the designated beneficiaries when the account holder passes away. At Berman and Associates, we start every estate administration by carefully reviewing the deceased’s assets to determine which property will pass automatically, and what needs to be included in the probate estate.

PA Intestate Succession Rules for if Someone Dies Without a Will

Who inherits a person’s property after dying without a will depends on the shape of that person’s family tree. Intestate succession depends on who the person’s closest living relatives are at the time of their death. (Here “descendants” includes children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.)

Surviving Family Members

Who Inherits

Spouse with no descendants or parents

Spouse gets 100%

Descendants, but no spouse

Children share 100%

Spouse and descendants in common (i.e. traditional family)

Spouse gets the first $30,000 and 50% of the rest;

Descendants share 50% of the rest

Spouse and descendants from another relationship (i.e. blended family)

Spouse gets 50%; Children share 50%

Spouse and parents

Spouse gets the first $30,000 and 50% of the rest;

Parents share 50% of the rest

Parents, but no spouse or descendants

Parents share 100%

Siblings, but no spouse, descendants, or parents

Siblings share 100%

No surviving family members

State gets 100%

At Berman Law, we can help you trace your family tree to identify the proper intestate heirs and make sure everyone receives what they are entitled to under PA intestate law.

Who Counts as an Heir Under Pennsylvania Intestate Law

Dying without a will affects inheritance depending on the legal relationship between the deceased and the would-be heir. In some families, questions around who counts as an heir can raise legal issues of their own:

  • Adopted children count as heirs of their adopted parents as long as the legal adoption proceedings are over. They will not count as heirs of their biological parents after those parent-child relationships are legally terminated.
  • Step-children do not count as heirs of their step-parents unless they were legally adopted.
  • Half-siblings count as heirs equally with full siblings.
  • Children born outside of marriage count as heirs to their mother automatically, and count as heirs to their father if (1) their parents married later; (2) their father claimed them and financially supported them; or (3) paternity has been established under Pennsylvania family law.
  • Children born during the marriage count as heirs of both parents even if the family believes they were conceived as part of an affair.
  • Posthumous children conceived prior to the person’s death and born later count as heirs.
  • Grandchildren and great-grandchildren only count as heirs if their parents are not alive to receive their share at the time of the deceased’s death.
  • Dead heirs descendants only inherit based on their parent’s relationship if that person outlived the deceased by at least five days (this is most often an issue in auto accident cases).

In some of these cases, there will be legal arguments over whether a particular individual counts as an heir. When that happens, we can represent the would-be heir, or the estate, in advocating for a fair resolution of the issue.

What to Do When a Parent Dies Without a Will

If your parent or loved one dies without a will, or if you believe a will exists but can’t find it, it is important to speak with an estate attorney soon after the person passes away. An estate administration lawyer can help you open a probate case using your loved one’s death certificate and begin the intestate process, so that your family can get the support they need, and your loved one’s assets can be distributed properly.

At Berman Law, our experienced Pennsylvania estate planning attorneys are here to help your family when a loved one dies without a will. We welcome you to contact us to set up an interview to discuss your financial situation and negotiate an agreement that protects your whole family.

Categories: Estate Planning

Contact Us

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.