» Probate & Estate Administration

How does the probate process end in Pennsylvania?

There are essentially two ways to close an estate in Pennsylvania: informally and formally. Most Pennsylvania estates are closed informally, by release agreement, sometimes referred to as a Family Settlement Agreement. Release agreements allow the beneficiaries of a Pennsylvania estate to approve the administration of the estate and consent to the final distribution of the remaining estate assets. This agreement will usually include an informal account of the assets, liabilities, expenses, and proposed distribution, as well as important legal provisions for the protection of the Executor or Administrator. If all parties sign the release agreement, the estate may be closed without court action.

Alternatively, when a release agreement cannot be obtained, the Executor or Administrator must file a formal account for approval by the Orphans’ Court.  Specific legal requirements must be followed when using this route. The Orphans’ Court will schedule hearings for all objections it receives from an interested party. After objections have been ruled on, the court will enter a final order, thus allowing the Executor or Administrator to close the estate.

What court has jurisdiction over estate proceedings in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, the Orphans’ Court is the Division of the Court of Common Pleas that serves as the probate court with jurisdiction over estate proceedings. However, the Register of Wills office in each Pennsylvania county acts as a quasi-judicial body whose primary function is to determine whether a document offered for probate should be admitted to the official record. The Register of Wills alone has the authority to appoint personal representatives and grant letters. Prior to opening the official record, the Register of Wills can conduct evidentiary hearings, take testimony, and render decisions on disputed estate matters. Decisions by the Register of Wills may be appealed for specific reasons to the Orphans’ Court Division.

What is Ancillary Probate, and when is it used?

Sometimes, a decedent dies owning property in more than one state. If a nonresident decedent dies owning property in Pennsylvania, ancillary probate may be necessary to legally transfer those assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs. The process begins with obtaining an exemplified copy of the estate record from the state where the decedent was domiciled at death and filing it with the Register of Wills in the Pennsylvania county where the property is located. If a nonresident decedent owns property in more than one county in Pennsylvania, you may file the exemplified record in any county where the decedent had property. For those that are curious, an exemplified copy of a record is an official copy of public records made under seal that can only be made and attested by the body that originally issued the document – i.e., a fancy certified copy of a court record.

Does Pennsylvania have a simplified small estate procedure?

Pennsylvania does offer a special process to administer estates without the need for formal probate where the decedent’s personal property does not exceed $50,000.  However, using a “Small Estate Petition” in Pennsylvania does not eliminate the requirement to pay creditors and taxes. Also, if the decedent owned real property of any value, formal probate will be necessary. In addition to the “Small Estate Petition” procedure, Pennsylvania has other probate shortcuts that assist some families with transferring property more quickly and with less hassle. For example, Pennsylvania law permits financial institutions to release up to $10,000 to certain surviving family members without opening an estate as long as the funeral expenses have already been paid.  

What other tax returns can a Pennsylvania decedent’s estate be required to pay?

Other than the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax return, the Executor or Administrator of an estate may need to file other tax returns. In most cases, the estate’s personal representative will need to file the decedent’s final state and federal income tax returns. A much smaller amount of estates need to file a return for federal estate taxes, as well as state and federal income taxes for the estate in cases where the assets of the estate generate income as the estate is being administered.

What is the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax? When must it be paid?

Pennsylvania is one of seventeen states that has a death tax, which is known as the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax.  An inheritance tax is imposed on the beneficiaries of an estate for the right to inherit property; however, a will often provides that the estate should pick up this tab as well. In Pennsylvania, the inheritance tax rate depends on the value of a decedent’s assets and the beneficiary’s relationship to the decedent. Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax is assessed on almost all assets owned by the decedent alone or with others. Payment is due nine months after a decedent’s date of death, after which the tax due accrues interest and penalties.

Can an Executor or Administrator sell a decedent’s real estate?

Yes. The personal representative of an estate can sell the decedent’s real property. Pennsylvania law even permits the Executor or Administrator to sell a decedent’s real estate without getting all of the beneficiaries to approve unless prohibited by the decedent’s will. However, some situations do require approval of the beneficiaries, and in some cases court approval, such as any sale of real property to an interested party (e.g., a personal representative or a beneficiary).

Do all of the deceased’s assets pass through probate?

Not all of a decedent’s property in Pennsylvania will pass through probate. When a person dies in Pennsylvania, all of their property is divided into two categories. Only assets that the deceased owned in their name alone or in some circumstances jointly with someone else but without rights of survivorship (also known as Tenants in Common) will pass through probate. These assets are commonly called “probate assets.” Other assets such as those held jointly with rights of survivorship and assets with designated beneficiaries will pass directly to another person by operation of law. These assets are commonly called “non-probate assets.”

How long does the typical probate take in Pennsylvania?

The estate administration process in Pennsylvania typically takes between one and two years. Many factors will affect the exact amount of time it takes to complete the process. Settling an uncontested estate, where there is no need for litigation, will generally take less time than estates that have fighting beneficiaries. In the most complicated cases, the probate process can take several years. Of course, the vast majority of complex estate administration cases are a consequence of lousy estate planning or no estate planning at all. 

Who is responsible for paying a decedent’s debts in Pennsylvania?

When someone dies, their outstanding debts do not die as well. In simple terms, the decedent’s estate now becomes responsible for any debt. If the estate has sufficient assets to pay all debts, the estate’s Executor or Administrator may pay all creditor claims as they come and ultimately distribute any remaining property to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs. Things get a bit more complicated when the estate is insolvent, which is when a decedent’s debts are greater than their assets. In those cases, the personal representative for the estate will use all of the money from a decedent’s assets to pay off the debts. In Pennsylvania, the payment of debts follows a very specific order of priority, which is outlined in the PEF Code. If any debt remains unpaid after all of the assets have been exhausted, the decedent’s family members will not be responsible for the remainder.