Probate refers to the legal actions that occur when an individual passes. This process serves to distribute any assets designated to the individual’s family or heirs while also covering any debts left by the individual.
Things can get complicated without a will. Without an administrator or executor named to handle the individual’s assets, multiple parties may claim authority over the estate, resulting in arguments and drawn-out litigation.
Because of that, it must be determined if the deceased individual had created a will prior to their passing. If so, the items of their estate get distributed based on the instructions left in the will.
But if a person passes without a will, Pennsylvania probate law decides how the assets will be distributed.
Probate Process for Pennsylvania
As in other states, the appointment of an administrator or executor in Pennsylvania charges one representative to responsibly handle the probate process. As the loss of an individual and the handling of their estate can be stressful and detail-oriented, the appointment of an administrator or executor can bring peace of mind to both the individual’s family and the courts.
First, Pennsylvania law requires the executor of the will or a family member to appear in court and file a petition of probate and apply for letters testamentary. In the event the deceased individual left no will, a family member can seek letters of administration and be appointed as the administrator of the estate.
Both the letters testamentary and letters of administration services to authorize either an executor or administrator as the person in charge of administering the individual’s estate. The difference? The administrator gets appointed by the court rather than the wishes of the individual.
Once the personal representative has been appointed and the letters testamentary or letters of administration have been filed, the court will issue a short certificate, an official statement verifying the executor or administrator possesses the legal authority to act on behalf of the individual’s estate. The representative will then present the short certificate to any agencies involved with asset transfer or benefit handling.
The representative will need at least one short certificate for every agency involved in the asset distribution process, which can include organizations like insurance companies, transfer agents, and banks.
Now the estate can be opened through a petition for probate. If the individual did create a will, the court will verify its authenticity, although this step can be skipped if the will was executed with a notary public as a witness. The petition of probate will be reviewed and, upon approval, the administrator or executor will be sworn to officiate the administration of the estate.
Notifying the Beneficiaries
The executor or administrator begins their task by notifying the individual’s heirs and everyone listed in the will, as all those people qualify as beneficiaries of the probate process.
Using a written notice form provided by the register of wills office, the representative mails the notices to the beneficiaries and files a certification of completion with the court as proof that everyone that needs to be notified has been notified. The representative will also handle the publication of legal notices to announce the estate has been opened, starting the one-year deadline for creditors to file claims against the estate for unpaid debts.
These debts can include things like creditors, taxes, and any funeral expenses accrued after the individual’s passing.
Listing the Assets
Next, the representative works to identify and assemble the assets into an inventory that gets filed with the court. This comprehensive inventory must list all the individual’s assets and their respective values at the time of the individual’s passing. In addition to funds, the assets can include real estate and insurance policies.
Viewing the Debts
Once the assets have been tallied and valued, the representative must address any existing debts to be paid. These debts can include any federal and state inheritance taxes, legal fees, and a commission to the representative for handling the estate business. When those debts have been settled, the remainders will be distributed to the beneficiaries and heirs.
Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax
As of January 2022, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue lists the following Pennsylvania inheritance tax rates:
• 0 percent on transfers to a surviving spouse or to a parent from a child aged 21 or younger;
• 4.5 percent on transfers to direct descendants and lineal heirs;
• 12 percent on transfers to siblings; and
• 15 percent on transfers to other heirs, except charitable organizations, exempt institutions, and government entities exempt from tax.
Any property owned jointly between spouses is exempt from inheritance tax.