Not all of a decedent's property in Pennsylvania falls under the state's probate laws. Whether or not a particular asset falls under the state's probate laws depends on how it is titled or if an asset includes designated beneficiaries. Generally, assets titled solely in the decedent's name must go through probate, while assets jointly held with right of survivorship and assets with designated beneficiaries do not.
Assets subject to probate include all real estate and personal property owned solely by the decedent without designated beneficiaries. Pennsylvania requires the estate executor to submit an inventory of all of the decedent's assets and their value at the time of death to the probate court. This includes solely-owned bank and brokerage accounts, stocks and bonds, real estate, motor vehicles, art, jewelry, antiques and other items of value. Assets going through probate eventually pass to the heirs and beneficiaries named in the will.
Any jointly titled assets -- commonly, these include real estate, bank or brokerage accounts, cars and mutual funds -- do not pass through probate. Jointly-held bank accounts with right of survivorship go directly to the surviving account holders. None of these assets go to beneficiaries named in the will, so Pennsylvania residents must be careful when titling property. If you name someone as a joint account holder, the person has no legal obligation to share these assets with anyone else after your death.
Assets With Designated Beneficiaries
For certain assets, you can designate beneficiaries. For example, you can name a beneficiary to your bank accounts, mutual funds, securities or brokerage accounts. These assets do not pass through probate but go to the designated beneficiary. To ensure these assets do not go through probate, select secondary beneficiaries in case the primary beneficiary dies before payment or transfer. Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not permit transfer on death provisions for motor vehicles or real estate.
Retirement Accounts and Life Insurance Policies
The decedent's retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s or IRAs, name specific beneficiaries and do not pass through probate. Any life insurance policies in the decedent's name also avoid probate, with proceeds going directly to the designated beneficiaries. Choose secondary beneficiaries in case the primary beneficiary dies before a transfer of assets, rendering the funds subject to probate. The Internal Revenue Service has rules and regulations pertaining to retirement accounts depending on the relationship of the decedent to the beneficiary, with a surviving spouse having more leeway in making decisions regarding these assets.
Accounts held in trust for another person do not go through probate. Legally, those assets belong to the trust, not the decedent.