» Probate & Estate Administration
Under Pennsylvania law, the Executor or Administrator of an estate is required to mail Notice of Estate Administration to specific individuals within three months of the grant of letters. Those required to be sent this notice include anyone named in the decedent’s will, the spouse and children of the decedent (whether or not named in the will), and all individuals entitled to receive property under the laws of intestacy when there is no will. Depending on the specific circumstances, other individuals may also need to be sent notice. Additionally, the personal representative of the estate must advertise that letters have been granted in a newspaper of general circulation near the decedent’s residence and in the legal journal designated by local rule. These advertisement notices must run once a week for three consecutive weeks. The purpose of advertising the estate is to give notice to potential estate creditors.
There are several ways to obtain a Pennsylvania death certificate. The easiest way is to request a death certificate through the funeral home, assuming you are using a funeral home. You may also request a Pennsylvania death certificate online through Pennsylvania’s only authorized vendor. Additionally, you may request death certificates by visiting one of Pennsylvania’s six Vital Records offices throughout the commonwealth or by mailing an Application for a Death Certificate to the Division of Vital Records, Death Certificate Processing Unit, PO Box 1528, New Castle, PA 16103. The fee for each death certificate is $20, which is waived if the decedent or the decedent’s spouse is a military veteran.
To get the most out of your first meeting with a probate attorney, you should start getting organized and gathering as many of the following documents as you can locate to bring to your consultation: original will (if one exists), death certificates, real estate deeds, copies of financial account statements, and copies of outstanding bills and invoices – including bills for funeral and medical expenses. While you will likely be gathering documents throughout the estate administration process, your early efforts to assemble as many of these documents as you can will ensure the estate can be handled as efficiently as possible.
If a decedent dies without a will (i.e., intestate), the Register of Wills will select someone to serve as Administrator of the estate. Each state has laws that outline who may serve as Administrator of an intestate estate. Pennsylvania law (known as the PEF Code) allows the following individuals in the following order to be appointed Administrator of an estate: 1) the decedent’s surviving spouse; 2) the decedent’s issue (e.g., children and grandchildren); 3) the decedent’s parents; 4) the decedent’s siblings; 5) the decedent’s grandparents; and 6) other interested parties such as the decedent’s creditors. Keep in mind that when multiple people have an equal right to serve as Administrator that those who do not wish to serve can execute a renunciation in support of someone else being appointed Administrator. If necessary, the Register of Wills may conduct hearings to determine who should be appointed.
It is always best to have the original will to probate. Unfortunately, sometimes all we have is a copy. Under Pennsylvania law, when attempting to probate a copy of a will, a legal presumption exists that the original will was intentionally destroyed or revoked. To overcome this presumption, one must prove that 1) an original will was actually executed, 2) the contents of the original are substantially the same as the copy, and 3) the testator had not revoked or destroyed the original prior to death. Someone trying to probate a copy of a will in Pennsylvania must provide at least two competent witnesses that will testify to both the execution and content requirements. This two-witness requirement is often a major hurdle when attempting to probate a copy of a will.
Each state has its own rules regarding who can be appointed the Executor of an estate. The good news is that Pennsylvania only has two basic requirements when it comes to who is eligible to serve as the Executor of an estate: 1) an Executor must be at least 18 years old and 2) an Executor must be of sound mind (i.e., not adjudicated incapacitated by a court). Yes, Pennsylvania does allow out-of-state residents to serve as Executors. Most Register of Wills offices now have virtual procedures in place to swear in Executors in lieu of requiring them to show up in person, which has made the appointment of out-of-state Executors much more practical.
First and foremost, Executors or Administrators of estates in Pennsylvania are fiduciaries. This means that Executors and Administrators have a legal obligation to make sure that the estate is administered properly. If the estate is not handled properly, the Executor or Administrator may be held personally liable for any issues that arise during their tenure. While their specific responsibilities may vary from case to case, generally, Executors and Administrators are responsible for collecting estate assets, settling any debts, paying any taxes due, and distributing all remaining proceeds or property, if any, to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs. That seems simple enough, right?
In a practical sense, there is no significant difference between an Executor and an Administrator. Executors and Administrators serve the same role in the Pennsylvania probate and estate administration process. They manage a decedent’s assets and ensure the proper distribution of those assets. The difference between the two is merely how they are appointed. An Executor is a person named in someone’s will to carry out the terms of that will. If the decedent did not leave a will, the Register of Wills is tasked with selecting someone to serve as Administrator. Executors and Administrators are both commonly referred to as the “personal representative” of the estate.
The laws governing probate and estate matters are state specific. Estate proceedings in Pennsylvania are governed by the following laws and rules:
- Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code (PEF Code) (20 Pa.C.S. §§ 101 to 8815)
- Inheritance and Estate Tax Act (72 P.S. §§ 9101 to 9196)
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court Orphans’ Court Rules (Pa.O.C. Rules 1.1 to 16.12)
In addition to the above laws and rules, each county may adopt its own local rules regulating the practice and procedure within that county (see, for example, Lackawanna County Orphans’ Court Rules). Each probate matter presents its own unique issues and potential pitfalls; thus, the Executor or Administrator must follow these laws and rules to avoid personal liability.
Probate in Pennsylvania is the legal process that administers the distribution of a deceased person’s assets. When a person dies in Pennsylvania owning any assets in their name, an estate will need to be probated, whether or not there is a will. The intention of probate is to ensure the proper collection of estate assets, settlement of any debts, payment of any taxes due, and that any remaining property is distributed to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs. If the decedent had a will, the assets will be distributed according to the terms of the will. If the decedent did not have a will, the estate assets will be distributed according to Pennsylvania intestacy laws. The process begins with having an Executor or Administrator appointed to administer the estate by the Register of Wills in the county where the decedent resided.