The probate process in Pennsylvania is relatively simple, and some of its steps can be avoided by consent of the beneficiaries and the executor, the person responsible for settling the deceased’s estate and making sure the terms of her will are carried out. The Register of Wills in each Pennsylvania county determines if a will is valid and hears any disputes from persons who might want to contest it. Probate is then handed over to the Orphan’s Court that will eventually close the estate when probate is completed.
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Take the original will and a certified copy of the death certificate to the Register of Wills in the county where the testator, the person who made the will, lived. The Register will give you several forms to complete, including a petition for grant of letters and an estate information sheet. If the will is not “self-proved” with a notarized statement by the testator and his witnesses that it is legitimate, the witnesses should accompany you to court so they can make a statement as to the authenticity of the will. The Register gives you an oath of office as executor and documentation allowing you to act and make transactions for the testator’s estate. A probate tax is payable at this time, based on the estate’s value.
Get organized. Gather all the documentation you can that supports the testator’s financial affairs, such as tax returns, account statements, credit card statements, deeds, mortgages, and automobile titles and loans. This will give you a handle on what you are dealing with as you move forward and help you to avoid overlooking anything.
Value the testator’s assets once you have determined what they are and cull out the ones that do not have to pass through the probate process. These are anything that passed directly to a beneficiary when the testator died. Examples include real estate where the deed is held with someone else with rights of survivorship, insurance policies and retirement accounts with named beneficiaries, and assets held in trust. If any of the assets that do have to pass through probate require professional appraisals, such as real estate or business interests, arrange to have this done.
Provide the testator’s immediate family with a certified copy of the death certificate and a receipt for burial and funeral costs. A family member can provide this to any financial institution holding the testator’s savings and receive $3,500 before the estate’s expenses are paid.
Post a notice in the local newspaper advising the testator’s creditors that the estate is in probate. They have a limited amount of time to make claims against the estate for payment. You can take no other action until this time period expires.
Pay any taxes due. Pennsylvania levies an inheritance tax which must be paid within nine months of the testator’s date of death. Federal estate taxes might also be due, depending on the size of the estate. The testator’s individual tax returns must be filed for his last year of life.
Pay any claims for debts you received in response to your newspaper notice, assuming they are legitimate. Distribute the remaining assets, after payment of debts, taxes and estate expenses, to the will’s beneficiaries and close the estate.
References & Resources
- Philadelphia Bar Association: Probate and Trust Law Section – Chapter 2 Letters Testamentary
- WillsAndTrustsLawFirms: The Probate Process in Pennsylvania
- Unruh, Turner, Burke & Frees, Attorneys at Law: Common Delays in the Probate Process
- Government of the County of Berks: Berks County Register of Wills
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