What happens if a person dies in Pennsylvania without a will or an estate plan in place? Some people think the government takes the property and surviving loved ones will be left fending for themselves. In most cases, that is simply not true. However, if a person dies without a Will in place, Pennsylvania’s Laws of Intestate Succession will determine how the assets and property pass and to whom. This may be just as scary as the thought of the government taking the assets, since the law may require distribution of assets to those who a person would not otherwise intend to receive them.
Pennsylvania Intestacy Laws
The Pennsylvania Intestate Succession laws (20 P.S. § 2101 et seq.) govern the distribution of certain assets and property if you die without a Will or Trust. While the Intestate Succession laws do not affect the passing of jointly-owned property with survivorship rights or certain assets with beneficiary designations (such as life insurance, IRAs, or 401k plans), the law does determine who receives property of the decedent.
- Decedent: a person who is deceased
- Personal Representative: The Administrator or Executor
- Intestate or Intestacy: When a person dies without a Will
- Intestate succession: persons receiving the decedent’s property pursuant to Pennsylvania law.
Intestate Succession Generally
The purpose of the law for Intestate Succession for an intestate estate is to prescribe how and to whom the estate will be distributed. Intestate succession is designed to first protect the surviving spouse and the surviving children. If there is no surviving spouse or surviving children, the law will provide for extended family, including parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and their children and grandchildren. The assets will generally pass to those who are alive at the time of the decedent’s death and their relationship to the decedent.
Intestate Share Of A Surviving Spouse
- If a decedent is survived by his or her spouse and has no surviving children or parents, the surviving spouse will receive the entire intestate estate.
- If a decedent is survived by his or her spouse and a parent or parents, then the spouse will receive the first $30,000.00 of the estate, plus one-half of the remaining estate. The surviving parent or parents will receive the other half of the remaining estate.
- If a decedent is survived by his or her spouse and children, who are also children of the surviving spouse, then the spouse will receive the first $30,000.00 of the estate, plus one-half of the remaining estate. The surviving children will receive the other half of the remaining estate.
- If a decedent is survived by his or her spouse and at least one of the surviving children is not the surviving spouse’s child, the spouse is limited to one-half of the estate. The remainder of the estate shall pass to the surviving children.
- If a decedent is survived by his or her spouse and the surviving children are NOT the surviving spouse’s children, the spouse will receive one-half of the estate and the children will receive the other half of the estate.
- If a decedent is NOT survived by a spouse, then the children of the decedent will receive the entire estate.
- If a decedent is NOT survived by a spouse or children, then the estate will be received by the parents of the decedent.
- If a decedent is NOT survived by a spouse, children or parents, then the estate will be received by the decedent’s siblings.
- If a decedent is NOT survived by a spouse, children, parents or siblings, then the estate will be received by the decedent’s grandparents. One-half of the estate to the paternal grandparents and one-half of the estate to the maternal grandparents or in some cases, to the children of the grandparents.
- If no grandparent survives the decedent, then to the uncles, aunts, and their children and grandchildren.
- If no one mentioned above survives the decedent, then, and only then, does your estate pass to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Personal Representative – Administrator/Administratrix
A Personal Representative is the person who is responsible for administering the estate of the decedent. Administering an estate means to wind up the decedent’s affairs. Estate administration requires compliance with state and federal laws to ensure that assets are collected, debts and obligations are satisfied, expenses and taxes are paid, and the estate is properly closed after proper distribution of the estate assets.
If a person dies with a Will, the Personal Representative is referred to as the Executor or Executrix. If a person dies intestate, the Personal Representative is referred to as the Administrator or Administratrix.
In order to officially be declared a Personal Representative, a person must be empowered to do so by the Office of the Register of Wills in the County in which the decedent was domiciled at the time of his or her death.
For an intestate estate, a person must formally file a petition for the grant of Letters of Administration. An attorney can assist the individual with the preparation of a petition only after it is determined that he or she is able to serve as the Administrator pursuant to Pennsylvania law. In accordance with PA law, the Register of Wills will grant Letters of Administration to the following people in the following order:
- The surviving spouse
- Those entitled under the intestate law as the Register of Wills shall judge will best administer the estate
- Principal creditors of the decedent at the time of the decedent’s death
- Other fit persons
Intestate Estate Administration in Pennsylvania
While it is not necessary for a Personal Representative to administer an estate with the help of an estate attorney, it is recommended that the Personal Representative selects an attorney to assist him or her. Personal Representatives are legally responsible for proper estate administration and compliance with applicable laws. As such, an attorney and the Personal Representative can work together to ensure proper estate administration.
To begin, the Personal Representative and the attorney will petition the Register of Wills for the grant of Letters of Administration. In addition to the petition, the Personal Representative will also produce the death certificate and photo identification. If the information is complete and accurate, the Personal Representative will take an oath or affirmation that he or she will properly administer the estate.
Next, the Personal Representative and the attorney will gather the estate assets and inventory the assets. They will value the assets and make sure that steps are taken to protect the assets until final distribution. This may include ensuring that the decedent’s home is locked, insured, and maintained. For stocks and bonds, the Personal Representative may want to liquidate the assets to protect against a downturn in the stock market. Other steps can be taken to protect other assets such as business interests, automobiles, family heirlooms, and the like.
The Personal Representative and the attorney must also handle the decedent’s debts and obligations such as credit card bills, mortgage loan, car loan, final income taxes, and the like. The attorney can help the Personal Representative negotiate settlements with creditors and otherwise make sure that the debts are fully and completely satisfied.
The estate attorney can also advise and guide the Personal Representative on other procedural formalities such as sending notice to beneficiaries, filing a certificate of compliance with the Register of Wills, publishing notice of the estate, filing an inventory, and other matters. If the Personal Representative fails to comply with estate administration formalities, problems can arise. One of the important roles of an estate attorney is to help the Personal Representative avoid problems.
After the formalities are satisfied, debts and obligations are satisfied, assets are gathered and inventoried, the Personal Representative must prepare and file the REV-1500. The REV-1500 is the tax filing to report the inheritance taxes that must be paid through the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue.
And finally, the Personal Representative will distribute the net assets to the heirs. This can be done only after the heirs sign a written Family Settlement Agreement with an informal account or upon approval by the Orphan’s Court after the filing of a formal account.
The Martin Law Firm, P.C. | Intestate Estate Administration
The Martin Law Firm, P.C. routinely assists family members with the administration of intestate estates. We are located in Montgomery County, PA and have represented clients in the surrounding area for over 20 years. We have helped administer estates in the Register of Wills offices in Philadelphia County, Montgomery County, Bucks County, Chester County and Delaware County. Contact us today for a free case evaluation at 215-646-3980.