Pennsylvania courts are less involved with the probate process of a deceased’s will than some other states, but there are still procedures and laws to follow. While it is always possible to write a will or guide an estate through the probate process without an attorney, it can be helpful to at least consult with a lawyer to make sure your understanding of the law is correct.
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Any adult over the age of 18 who is of sound mind may write a will in Pennsylvania. The document must be in writing. If you are unable to sign your name to your will, someone else can do it for you, but you will need two witnesses if this is the case. You must state in their presence that what they are signing is your will.
Whether or not you leave a will, your property must still pass through the probate process in Pennsylvania if you own anything in your sole name that does not pass directly to a beneficiary through some other means. For example, real estate might pass directly to a co-owner such as a spouse if you hold the deed as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Debts, taxes, your funeral costs and expenses of your estate must be paid first before your property is distributed to heirs or beneficiaries. Likely expenses include court fees, professional fees if you consult with an attorney, and costs for any required newspaper notices. The person you have chosen as executor of your will, or an administrator appointed by the court if you left no will, will also notify your heirs and beneficiaries that your estate is in probate, perform an accounting of your assets and make sure everyone gets what they are supposed to get.
Marriage and Divorce Provisions
When you marry in Pennsylvania, whether or not you have a will and mention her in it, your spouse becomes entitled to one-third of your estate after expenses and debts are paid. This is not automatic, however. She must file a claim against the estate to receive it. An exceptions is if she is in your will and you left her more than a one-third share. If you divorce, anything you left her in your will is automatically nullified unless you state in your will that you intended her to receive a bequest even if the marriage ends.
If you die without leaving a will, all states have specific legislation, called intestacy laws, stating who your property will go to. Pennsylvania’s intestacy laws state that your spouse gets your entire estate if you have no children and your parents are not living. If your parents are living, or if you have children, he gets $30,000 off the top of your estate and half of the balance of anything that remains. However, if your spouse is not also the parent of any of your children, he gets only one-third of your estate without the $30,000 provision. If you don’t have a spouse, your estate goes first to your children, then to your parents if you have no children, then to your siblings, nieces and nephews, then to your grandparents, and finally to your aunts and uncles and their descendants if no one else is living. Only if you leave none of these relatives will the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania take your estate.