Although probate has a reputation for being time-consuming and complicated, the entire process can be completed in Pennsylvania in as little as 3 to 6 months. Appearances in court can be limited to less than half an hour in the office of the Register of Wills. Executors are not required representation by an attorney, although it is a good practice to consult with a lawyer so you are sure you understand the laws.
Appointment of Executor
Most wills name an executor, the person the deceased wants to oversee probate of the estate and closure of his affairs. In Pennsylvania, the named executor opens probate by meeting with the Register of Wills in the county where the deceased made his will. In some counties, the Register of Wills will help you with the completion of required documents, which include a petition for probate 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 authentic, the executor must locate the witnesses and submit sworn statements by them that the will and the testator’s signature are legitimate.
Notice of Estate
After being sworn into office by the Register of Wills, the executor must give notice to all interested parties that probate has been opened. A notice to creditors must be run in two local newspapers advising them how long they have to make claims for any money the deceased owed them. Heirs -- anyone directly related to the deceased who would have inherited if she had died without a will -- and all beneficiaries named in the will must also be given notice that the will is in probate. When this has been accomplished, proof must be provided to the court.
Organization of Assets
Not all the deceased’s assets need to go through probate. Insurance policies and certain retirement accounts pass directly to named beneficiaries, as well as real estate owned with another individual with rights of survivorship. However, all assets that do require a transfer of title from the deceased to his beneficiaries must be identified and secured by the executor.
Payment of Taxes and Debts
As creditors begin responding to the published notice of the estate, the executor must decide if their claims are legitimate or not. Those that are legitimate must be paid through estate funds. An estimated payment toward Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax should be made within three months because the state offers a discount for early filings. All other income taxes must be filed and paid, as well. If the estate does not have enough money to pay everyone, Pennsylvania requires that the estate’s costs be paid first; these include filing fees, costs of newspaper notices and professional fees to attorneys and accountants. Then, the deceased’s immediate family is entitled to a family exemption of $3,500. After burial costs, taxes are paid, followed by creditor’s claims and other debts. If there is not enough money to pay all the creditors in full, each gets an equal percentage of the total debt owed to them. Generally, assets that do not pass through probate are safe from claims by creditors.
Executors usually will not disburse the remainder of assets to the will’s beneficiaries until all debts have been paid to avoid personal liability if the estate comes up short. When distribution is completed, the executor can submit a final accounting of the estate with the court and close it.