A Step-by-Step Guide to Opening Probate in PA

Most people are overwhelmed by the idea of probating an estate in Pennsylvania, if they even understand the process at all. For good reason, no two estates are alike and not all will even require the formal probate process. For those that do, probate can become time-consuming and expensive, depending on the total value of the estate and other factors related to debt and assets. So it’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you’re facing the probate process.

So how do you begin when you’re called upon to be the personal representative for someone’s estate?

Our biggest tip is to start by getting organized. Approaching your fiduciary responsibilities in an organized way will help you avoid some of the most common mistakes people make in the probate process.

And you can reduce your worry and stress by knowing what the probate process typically entails. Even if you plan to closely collaborate with your attorney instead of taking the DIY approach. The following steps explain what you will need to do to open the probate process here in the state of Pennsylvania.

Step 1: Consider Hiring a Lawyer to Help You

If you’ve recently been named as an executor/executrix, or someone died without a will in place, you’re probably feeling more than a little bit overwhelmed at this point. Your best option for handling the estate administration and probate process efficiently and effectively is to hire an experienced probate and estates attorney to guide you instead of going it alone.

While Pennsylvania allows individuals to open and work through the entire probate process without legal representation, the sheer amount of paperwork, reporting, and management of resources required can be almost too much to bear for most people. And if you encounter disputes with family members over particular assets, among other common issues, you will want a strong resource to consult for assistance and support right from the very beginning.

Step 2: Gather Documentation

While you will likely be gathering documentation as you go throughout the entire estate administration process, your initial effort to collect documents should be the most comprehensive. If you have made the good choice to work with an experienced probate and estates attorney, he or she will need to receive as many of the following items as you can locate for your initial consultation, preferably within a few days or weeks following the funeral:

  • Original will (if one exists) – Note that if your family member or friend worked with an attorney to create their will, that attorney’s office should have the document on file. You are not obligated to work with that original attorney, of course, but you will need to contact their office to obtain the will.
  • Death certificates – You may need many copies of the death certificate as “proof” to have certain assets released. Funeral directors can help you obtain these.
  • Real estate deeds, as applicable
  • Appraisals for “real property,” as applicable – This could be for real estate assets like homes or particularly valuable possessions like original artwork, jewelry, and other collections.
  • Copies of financial account statements – Brokerage or bank-based checking and savings accounts are some examples.
  • Copies of investment account statements/documentation – Some examples are stock certificates, dividend statements, certificates of deposit, and savings bonds.
  • Copies of life insurance policies that include beneficiary information
  • Outstanding bills and invoices for personal debts owed – This includes everything from home utility bills and property taxes to credit card statements and loan payments that are due.
  • Bills for funeral and medical expenses
  • Prior income tax returns
  • Names and current contact information for all beneficiaries/heirs named in the will

Step 3: Determine Assets that Can Skip Probate, if Any

Determining whether an asset must go through probate is often a question of whether it was owned by your friend or family member only in his or her name, and no one else is a co-owner or beneficiary of the asset. These types of assets will need to go through probate, while many other assets can typically bypass the process. For example, if the deceased person owned a home together with a spouse (in joint tenancy), that real estate asset would be considered non-probate property, and can generally be transferred to the co-owner (joint tenant) without the need for probate court approval.

Another example of assets that can skip probate would be accounts or policies that have a designated beneficiary in place. As we’ve discussed previously here on the blog, incorrect beneficiary designations on accounts can cause big problems for heirs, surviving family members, and others associated with the estate. Designated beneficiaries will receive a particular asset without probate.

A few other assets can skip probate and be passed along to a surviving spouse, children, or more distant relatives based on specific rules in Pennsylvania, including:

  • Bank accounts – Up to $10,000 may be released from financial institutions to a surviving spouse or other family member with proper “proof” to the institution that holds the account. A copy of the death certificate and a receipt for paid funeral expenses are necessary.
  • Wages – Employers may pay up to $5,000 in compensation (wages, salary, bonuses, etc.) to the employee’s surviving spouse or other family member.
  • Life insurance – Up to $11,000 in benefits, if not claimed by the personal representative of the estate within 60 days of the insured’s death, can be paid out to the surviving spouse or another close family member.

An experienced probate and estates attorney can help you separate probate assets from non-probate assets, of course, and will help you keep track of what’s what.

Step 4: File the Will and Petition for Probate

After you’ve determined what assets are exempt from probate, you may still be looking at a stack of assets that will certainly require it, and it’s time to actually open probate on the estate. The good news is that if the estate is small, your process likely will be, too. Pennsylvania offers a simplified probate process for estates with assets totaling less than $50,000, which does not include real estate values, the non-probate assets you determined in the previous step, and money used to pay for funeral expenses.

Determination of whether the simplified process can be used instead of the regular formal process will be made when you file your deceased friend or family member’s will with the court in the county where that individual was legally domiciled (made their home) at the time of death. If granted, you may be permitted to distribute your loved one’s assets to heirs named in the will without going through all of the stages of formal probate, which will save time and expense.

To officially begin probate, whether the simplified or regular formal process, you will need to provide an Estate Information Sheet and completed petition for probate and grant of letters along with the original will to the local probate court. Many Pennsylvania counties now utilize the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s standardized Register of Wills and Orphans’ Court forms instead of their own proprietary forms, though many individual counties do provide instructions and guidance on completing and submitting forms right on their websites. If your friend or family member legally resided in our home county of Lancaster at the time of death, full instructions and sample forms are provided in a convenient Register of Wills Office Packet supplied by the Judge Henry S. Kenderdine, Jr. Court Self Help Center.

If your friend or family member had an existing will (died “testate”), the filing process will be relatively painless, but if you are sure there is no will (this person died “intestate”), and no named executor/executrix, the Register of Wills grants permission via Letters of Administration in a specific order beginning with the surviving spouse, then the intestate heirs (generally children and other family members), principal creditors, and “other fit persons.” There is a filing fee that must be remitted to receive Letters, and that is based on the value of the estate. (A fee schedule for Lancaster County estates is also included in the packet linked above.)

After the probate case has been opened and Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration have been issued, there will be several stages and steps that you will need to work through over the course of months. We’ll focus on each of these in more detail in an upcoming blog post:

  1. Determining if the will is self-proving
  2. Giving notice that probate is beginning
  3. Gathering and inventorying assets
  4. Selling estate property, as applicable
  5. Determining tax liability for the estate and planning payments to tax authorities
  6. Distributing assets and preparing the final accounting
  7. Discharging the estate

Feeling overwhelmed by all of the responsibilities associated with estate administration and probate? We invite you to give us a call for help here at May, May & Zimmerman. Whether you’ve already successfully opened probate, but are now facing problems with creditors, family members, heirs, or others, or you need help getting started, schedule a free phone consult with one of our lawyers today.