Generally, when someone dies in Pennsylvania, his estate must be probated in order for the title of decedent’s assets to transfer to the decedent’s beneficiaries. In probate, Pennsylvania state laws govern the process and the substantive rules for how it may be done. Probate can be time consuming and expensive for the estate. Estate planning methods exist, however, to help either avoid probate in Pennsylvania completely or avoid it for certain assets.
Compared to some states, the actual probate process in Pennsylvania may be considered simple. The executor (or personal representative) of the estate must file with the register of wills in the proper county a petition for probate, the actual will, a death certificate, an estate information sheet, a check for all the filing fees and proof of the executor’s identity. These steps begin the probate process. If there are no disputes about the distribution of assets among beneficiaries or others, then the process can go relatively smoothly in Pennsylvania.
Small Estate Probate
Small estate probate exists in Pennsylvania as an alternative to traditional probate where an estate (as of 2011) has assets valued less than $25,000 in total. In small estate probate, the executor must file the will along with a small estates affidavit with the register of wills in the Pennsylvania County where the decedent last resided. The affidavit must be sworn and notarized.
One way to avoid probate in Pennsylvania is to create a living trust. With a living trust, the estate owner transfers all or some assets to the trust while she is alive. She appoints a trustee to manage the assets. Typically, an estate owner will name herself as trustee so she can retain control over her assets while alive. In addition, the estate owner appoints a successor trustee to distribute the assets upon her death. A successor trustee acts much like an executor, but with a trust the successor trustee does not have to probate the estate.
Certain assets in Pennsylvania may not have to go through probate to get title transferred from one person to another upon someone’s death. For example, spouses who own joint property do not have to have those assets probated if one spouse dies. Joint property with right of survivorship automatically passes from a decedent spouse to a living spouse. This joint property can include bank accounts, life insurance, annuities, retirement accounts and real property.
This article is not intended to give legal advice. Please consult a qualified attorney licensed to practice in Pennsylvania to find out how the facts of your situation apply to the Pennsylvania probate laws, which are subject to change.