In Pennsylvania, a married person can make a will and leave everything to his spouse, if he chooses. However, if a married person dies without a will, known as dying "intestate," Pennsylvania's laws of intestate succession provide protection to the surviving spouse by granting her a portion of the estate. The portion to which a surviving spouse is entitled depends on whether the deceased spouse has surviving children or parents.
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In Pennsylvania, the law gives surviving spouses and children priority over other heirs. If a married person doesn't make a will and has no surviving children or parents at the time of his death, the surviving spouse receives the entire estate, including all marital property and property acquired before marriage.
Children and Parents
Pennsylvania's laws of intestate succession grant a surviving spouse the right to inherit $30,000, plus one-half of the estate assets if the decedent had children with the spouse at the time of death; surviving children receive the remaining half of any estate assets. If a married person died without children, but left surviving parents, a surviving spouse inherits the same amount. In other words, the surviving spouse inherits $30,000, plus one-half of the estate assets and the decedent's parents inherit the remaining one-half.
Joint Property and Qualified Retirement Plans
In Pennsylvania, when spouses acquire joint property, neither spouse may devise it to a third party in a will. Joint property with a right of survivorship, such as a joint tenancy, automatically transfers to a surviving spouse upon the death of the other spouse. Moreover, a surviving spouse has a right to inherit funds held in a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), unless the surviving spouse waived that right by consenting to another beneficiary designation.
Pennsylvania ensures a surviving spouse gets her fair share of marital property in the event her spouse attempted to disinherit her in his will, or leaves her a smaller portion than what's provided for by Pennsylvania's intestate succession laws. Under these circumstances, a spouse may seek an "elective share" of one-third of the estate. This includes any property that would pass by the deceased spouse's will and other types of property, such as property in a revocable trust.