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Pennsylvania Inheritance Laws

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Upon an individual’s passing, their remaining assets may enter a legal procedure known as probate. This can be initiated with or without a will, and its primary goal is to settle any dispute between named beneficiaries and legal heirs, streamlining the execution of the deceased's wishes.

In Pennsylvania, probate matters fall under the jurisdiction of the Register of Wills and Clerk of the Orphans' Court. Looking at the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania's caseload data from 2022, 3,238 probate accounts awaited processing across the state. While the courts managed to resolve 2,045 cases, 1,193 remained pending for the following year.

From a bird’s-eye view, probate can be tedious because it requires several months or even years to complete. For uncontested estates, it may take between nine and 18 months. However, becoming familiar with the steps and relevant deadlines can help streamline the process.

With that in mind, this article delves into the intricacies of probate in Pennsylvania, providing a comprehensive overview of wills, intestate succession, and inheritance tax obligations. It aims to equip individuals and families with the information they need to navigate this crucial legal process successfully.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Pennsylvania?

Initiating probate in Pennsylvania requires interested parties to first ascertain the existence of a will left by the deceased. If the will is suspected to be in a safe deposit box, the decedent's death certificate must be presented to the holding bank to allow the next of kin to search for it. Once located, the will's validity must be established.

For a will to be valid, its maker (the testator) must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind. The will can be handwritten, typed, or printed, with other forms like oral and digital wills considered invalid. Furthermore, the testator must sign the document.

Unlike most states, Pennsylvania does not mandate witness presence for regular wills. However, witnesses are required for self-proving wills, which expedite probate by removing the need for witness testimony to confirm authenticity. To create one, the testator signs the document in the presence of two witnesses, then signs a self-proving affidavit with them, gets the affidavits notarized, and attaches them to the will.

Contesting a Will

Contesting a will is not undertaken lightly. While inheritance disputes may be more common for larger estates, objecting parties should have strong legal grounds to challenge a will's validity. A probate lawyer can represent you in a dispute, whether you’re the one contesting a will or seeking to execute it.

 These may include:

  • Undue influence: The testator was subject to pressure or manipulation that impacted their decision-making regarding the will's contents.

  • Fraud: The will's creation or signing involved deception or misrepresentation, leading the testator to believe they were signing a different document.

  • Forgery: The testator's signature on the will was falsified.

  • Lack of capacity: The testator was either a minor or lacked the mental capacity to understand the will's implications at the time of signing.

Adding another layer of complexity, an objecting party has a limited window to act. In most jurisdictions, the timer starts when the estate enters probate, and the contesting party must file their challenge within one year of that date. Failure to do so within this deadline results in the will's validity being upheld.

Probate Process in Pennsylvania

Regular probate cases are handled by the Register of Wills. However, for cases involving complex disputes and estate administration issues, hearings presided over by a judge in the local Orphans’ Court may be required.

1. Filing a Petition

Initiating the probate process involves completing and filing the Petition for Probate and Grant of Letters form with the local Register of Wills. This is usually the responsibility of the designated executor. In the absence of a will, a close relative may complete this task.

The testator’s death certificate and the original will, if available, are essential documents for filing. If the original will is missing, a certified copy may be presented, but only under demonstrably verifiable circumstances. These include:

  • Proof of the original will's existence.

  • Confirmation that the submitted copy accurately reflects the original's content.

  • Assurance that the original will was not destroyed or revoked by the deceased.

2. Appointing an Executor or Administrator

After successfully confirming the will's validity, the court convenes a hearing to formally appoint an executor. This designation is documented through the issuance of a letter of testamentary, granting the executor legal authority to manage the estate under the will's provisions. 

In the absence of a valid will, the court steps in and issues a letter of administration. This similarly empowers the administrator to manage the estate, albeit following the state's intestacy laws rather than a will's specific instructions.

3. Serving Notice

Following their appointment, an estate executor or administrator must issue a Notice of Estate Administration within three months. This serves as a legal notification to all parties with a potential interest in the estate. Recipients typically include:

  • Beneficiaries: Individuals named in the will to inherit assets.

  • Family members: The decedent's spouse, children, and other close relatives.

  • Creditors: Individuals or institutions owed money by the estate.

  • Attorney general: For estates with charitable or governmental beneficiaries.

  • Department of Revenue: If the deceased received government health benefits, like Medicaid.

The Notice can be delivered through various methods:

  • Personal service: Directly handing the notice to the recipient.

  • First-class mail: Sending the notice through registered or certified mail with a return receipt.

  • Publication: In a legal newspaper at least once a week for three consecutive weeks. This method primarily serves as a notice to potential creditors, granting them one year to file claims and collect debts owed by the estate.

4. Making an Inventory of Assets

The Register of Wills requires a complete inventory of the estate to be filed within nine months after the testator’s date of death. The executor or administrator must identify, locate, safeguard, and appraise all assets subject to probate. The table below separates probate assets from non-probate ones. 

Asset Type

Description

Probate

Solely owned real estate and bank accounts held solely in the decedent’s name.

Personal vehicles, such as cars and boats.

Stocks, bonds, investments, and other business interests.

Non-probate

Properties and accounts owned in joint tenancy.

Assets held in living trusts.

Payable-on-death and transfer-on-death accounts.

Life insurance policies and retirement plans with designated beneficiaries.

5. Settling Debts, Taxes, and Claims

When a decedent leaves behind debts exceeding the estate's available funds, Pennsylvania law dictates a specific order for prioritizing their payment. This ensures that essential expenses and obligations are addressed before other claims.

  1. Administration costs: Initial priority falls upon the expenses incurred in managing the estate, including probate and court fees, attorney fees, and reasonable compensation for the executor or personal representative.

  2. Family exemption: To protect surviving spouses and dependent children, a $3,500 exemption is granted on certain assets they may claim from the estate.

  3. Funeral and medical expenses: Debts arising from the decedent's final illness and funeral arrangements take precedence, encompassing medical bills, nursing home fees, and medication costs incurred within six months before death.

  4. Grave marker costs: Separate from funeral expenses, the cost of a grave marker or headstone is also prioritized.

  5. Unpaid rent: Rent owed by the testator for the six months preceding their death must be settled before moving on to other claims.

  6. Claims by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Liens and other claims filed by the state and its political subdivisions have a higher priority than private debts.

  7. Remaining debts and claims: Any remaining assets after settling the preceding priorities are distributed proportionally among all other creditors.

6. Submitting a Final Accounting Report and Distributing Assets

Following the settlement of all outstanding debts, a final report of the estate's finances must be submitted to the court. This document, along with a proposed distribution plan for the remaining assets, is then presented to the designated beneficiaries and legal heirs. If there are no objections, an estate planning attorney will draft a family settlement agreement, paving the way for the executor or administrator to begin asset distribution.

Simplified Probate for Small Estates

Note that not all estates in Pennsylvania must endure the lengthy probate process. A simplified procedure exists for "small estates," defined by state law as those valued at $50,000 or less, excluding real estate. As for assets with designated beneficiaries, like life insurance policies, they bypass probate through a "transfer by affidavit" process.

Moreover, certain payments up to $10,000 do not require probate court approval. Employers can disburse this amount directly to the deceased's surviving immediate family members. Meanwhile, banks can release funds under similar conditions upon presentation of the death certificate and proof of covered funeral expenses.

Overall, these provisions offer valuable alternatives to formal probate, potentially saving time and other resources for families dealing with the complexities of estate administration.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, when an individual passes away without a will, their estate undergoes intestate succession. This means that their assets will be distributed according to state law rather than their personal wishes. 

While non-probate assets are generally exempt from this process, there are a few exceptions. For instance, if the co-owners or named beneficiaries of such assets have also passed away, the assets may become subject to intestate succession.

Spousal Rights

The inheritance rights of a decedent’s surviving spouse are summarized as follows:

Surviving Heir

Inheritance Outcome

Spouse only

Spouse inherits everything.

Spouse and children

Spouse inherits the first $30,000 of the estate plus the remaining half of the balance.

Children inherit the other half.

Spouse and at least one child who is not a child of the spouse

Spouse inherits half of the estate. Children inherit the other half.

Spouse and parents

Spouse inherits the first $30,000 of the estate plus the remaining half of the balance.

Parents inherit the other half.

If there is a will but the surviving spouse has been omitted, they can still inherit a portion of the estate under their right to an elective share, which is equivalent to one-third of the estate. The spousal election must be filed within six months after an executor is appointed for the estate. 

Children’s Rights

In the absence of a surviving spouse, Pennsylvania inheritance laws dictate how the decedent's estate is distributed among their children. Biological, adopted, and posthumous children are automatically entitled to a share. However, specific conditions must be met for other categories:

  • Stepchildren and foster children: Must have been legally adopted by the decedent to inherit.

  • Children born out of wedlock: Only inherit if:

    • The decedent's paternity has been established legally under Pennsylvania law.

    • The decedent subsequently married the child's mother.

    • The decedent financially supported and publicly acknowledged the child.

  • Grandchildren: Only inherit if their parent (a child of the decedent) is deceased and unable to inherit their designated share.

A family lawyer can look into these issues to establish a child’s relationship with the decedent and their right to inherit.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

Following the distribution of the intestate estate to spouses and children, Pennsylvania's intestate succession laws stipulate the inheritance order for remaining family members:

  1. Parents: If both parents survive the decedent, they share the estate equally. If only one parent survives, they inherit the entire estate.

  2. Siblings: If no surviving parents exist, the decedent's siblings inherit the estate equally. If a sibling has predeceased the decedent, their descendants (children or grandchildren) may inherit their deceased parent's share by right of representation.

  3. Grandparents: In the absence of surviving parents or siblings, the decedent's grandparents inherit the estate equally. Similar to siblings, if a grandparent has predeceased the decedent, their descendants may be entitled to their share.

  4. Uncles and aunts: If there are no surviving grandparents, the decedent's uncles and aunts inherit the estate equally. Again, if an uncle or aunt has predeceased the decedent, their descendants may inherit instead. 

  5. Cousins: In the absence of surviving grandparents, uncles, or aunts, the decedent's cousins inherit the estate equally. As before, descendants of deceased cousins can receive a share on their behalf.

Estates With No Heirs

If, after a thorough investigation, the court cannot locate any surviving relatives of the deceased, the decedent's assets will undergo escheatment. This legal process transfers estate ownership to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, effectively making the state the inheritor.

Unique Situations in Pennsylvania Inheritance Law

In Pennsylvania, assets gifted by the deceased to an heir during their lifetime can be deducted from that heir's inheritance share only if the gift is explicitly acknowledged in writing by both parties. This ensures clarity and prevents disputes after the testator’s passing.

Note that state inheritance laws uphold equal treatment for all relatives, regardless of their degree of kinship. As such, half-blood relatives inherit the same share as full-blood relatives in the same class. Moreover, inheritance rights do not depend on the recipient's citizenship status. Relatives, regardless of their nationality, are entitled to inherit their designated shares.

However, individuals who have been convicted of intentionally causing the testator’s death through unlawful acts will not receive an inheritance. This keeps potential beneficiaries from profiting from their malicious acts.

Does Pennsylvania Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Pennsylvania is one of the six states that still impose inheritance taxes, which apply to all asset transfers after the testator’s death. The rate or amount is determined as follows:

Inheritor

Inheritance Tax Rate

Spouses, children below 21 years old, charitable organizations

0%

Direct descendants and lineal heirs

4.5%

Siblings

12%

Other heirs

15%

All inheritance taxes must be paid within nine months from the testator’s date of death. There is a 5% discount if the obligations are settled within three months.

While the Keystone State does not have its own estate tax, citizens are subject to federal gift taxes. As of 2023, the exemption cap for federal estate taxes is set at $12.92 million and $17,000 per recipient per year for federal gift taxes. 

To manage taxes on inheritance and gifts, you can consult with inheritance tax attorneys and law firms that offer estate planning services.   

Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network

The Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network has eight regional and six specialized legal aid programs for low-income Pennsylvanians. It provides a directory of legal aid providers that can help with civil issues, including matters related to wills, estate planning, and probate. Those in need can apply for aid on PLAN’s website.

PALawHelp.org

PALawHelp.org provides legal information to low-income persons and senior citizens in Pennsylvania. Its website contains resources covering diverse topics, including wills, estate planning, advance directives, and powers of attorney. It also connects individuals with lawyer referral services across the state should their income exceed the limits for free legal aid.

Neighborhood Legal Services

Since its foundation in 1966, Neighborhood Legal Services has catered to more than 1.2 million low-income Pennsylvanians. It offers a legal wellness tool that helps citizens identify current and potential legal problems. NLS also assists older adults who need help with living wills, advance directives, powers of attorney, and other health law legal services. Individuals can reach them through their toll-free number, (866) 761-6572. Alternatively, they can call one of the branches below:

  • Allegheny County: (412) 255-6700

  • Beaver County: (724) 378-0595

  • Butler County: (724) 371-3880

  • Lawrence County: (724) 658-2677

NLS’s intake unit answers calls from Mondays to Thursdays from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., and voicemails can be left until 1:00 p.m.

North Western Legal Services

North Western Legal Services is a nonprofit law firm that has been providing pro bono representation to the community for over 50 years. It handles health care wills, nursing home issues, and advance directives. It also helps those who wish to suspend their wills or powers of attorney. One can apply for its services online or call (814) 452-6957 or (800) 665-6957 to determine their eligibility.

MidPenn Legal Services

MidPenn Legal Services is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm that caters to low-income residents across Central Pennsylvania. It helped 22,196 clients and handled 9,917 cases between 2022 and 2023. Its SAFE (Safeguarding Vulnerable Populations Against Financial Exploitation) Program provides legal representation to disabled individuals and low-income elderly. The organization can be reached at 1-800-326-9177.

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