Pennsylvania Probate FAQ
What is Probate?
Probate in Pennsylvania refers to the process where the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recognizes the executor or administrator as the estate’s official representative. When someone dies, ownership of all assets in that person’s name will now pass to someone else. The Probate process provides the rules and oversight of that process. For a Pennsylvania estate, the initial step is to have the will recognized as valid by the Register of Wills of the county where the deceased was a resident. For example, if the deceased was a resident of Philadelphia County, the will is filed with the Philadelphia County Register of Wills. If there is no will, then the process begins with the selection of the person who will serve as the Administrator of the estate. If the Register of Wills accepts the petition for probate, then paperwork is given to the executor or administrator authorizing them to represent the estate. Probate has begun.
Where do I Probate the Pennsylvania Will?
The will is registered with the Register of Wills of the county that the deceased was a resident. For example, if the deceased died a Philadelphia resident the will is probated with the Philadelphia Register of Wills. To review a list of Pennsylvania Registers of Wills, CLICK HERE.
What if I am an Executor but I don’t Live in Pennsylvania?
Our experienced Probate teams can make arrangements for you to be sworn in as executor outside of Pennsylvania. In most cases, we can make arrangements so that you will never have to come to Pennsylvania at all. Because we focus our practice on Probate matters, we can help make the probate process as easy for you as possible.
How Long Does Probate Take?
There is no set time limit for an estate’s probate. As explained below, I often tell executors to tell the heirs that the estate will be open for at least a year, but we can often close the estate earlier (making the executor look good). The actual time the estate will be open will depend upon the estate’s assets and the taxes that need be paid. Pennsylvania’s Probate system is efficient, but there are certain steps over which you have no control. For example, certain tax returns need be filed and the forms might not even be available until the year following the death. The estate might contain hard to sell assets, such as an art collection or real estate, so the estate will have to stay open until the assets are sold. For a more detailed estimate, feel free to contact us with the details of your estate. Here are a few common examples of tasks that will force an estate to stay open longer than others:
What if the Decedent Left No Will?
If a Pennsylvania resident dies without a will, the estate then passes through the intestacy laws. The Probate Lawyer will then file a different petition with the Register of Wills to have an Administrator named, rather than an executor. The rules that cover who can serve as Administrator are rather complex, so if you have a relative who died without a will in Pennsylvania, feel free to contact us to help explain the process.
What are an Executor’s Duties and Responsibilities?
Once a probate petition is accepted, the executor’s or administrator’s job is to gather all the assets, pay creditors, satisfy all income/inheritance/estate taxes, and then distribute the remaining assets as the Will directs. Each estate is different and the amount of work and responsibility may vary. The estate’s location will also affect the personal representative’s responsibility. A Philadelphia estate must make certain reports to the Philadelphia Register of Wills, which differs from the reporting for a Palm Beach County estate’s reports to the Palm Beach County Surrogate. Strangely, even within a state the various reporting standards may differ.
A Probate Attorney versed in the rules of Pennsylvania probate can advise the executor on these reports. In the end, before distributing any funds, the executor should submit a report of what has been done to the beneficiaries and obtain a complete release of liability. Without this release, the executor can be forced to return to court years later and account.
As Pennsylvania Probate Attorneys, we regularly represent executors, administrators and personal representatives and guide them through the probate process. We work with you to analyze your particular estate and advise you of what options exist to bring the estate to a close.
What is an Executor’s Accounting?
An executor’s accounting is the report of the executor’s financial actions from the date the executor began serving until the end. It shows what was collected, what happened to those assets, any gain or losses on those assets and, in the Schedule of Distributions, how the executor plans to distribute the assets to the beneficiaries. In Pennsylvania, these accountings can either be informal or they are formal accountings filed in the Orphans’ Court.
Why Should the Executor Prepare an Accounting?
The executor should always obtain a release of liability from the heirs. The heirs, though, will often not wish to release the executor unless the executor can “account” for all the assets of the estate and explain all the expense incurred. To satisfy the heirs, the executor will need to provide an “accounting” of the assets and expenses. In Pennsylvania the rules that cover accountings are created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and can be further narrowed by each count’s Orphans’ Court. For example, in Philadelphia there are many more detailed rules found in the Philadelphia Orphans Court Rules than in other counties, such as the Pike County Orphans’ Court Rules. If the heirs are satisfied with the accounting, then they will sign the releases freeing the executor from liability.
Can the Beneficiaries Force the Executor to Prepare an Accounting?
In Pennsylvania, the heirs can force the executor to account by filing a Petition for Accounting with the Orphan’s Court. If they satisfy the judge, an order to account is issued.
What if the Executor Cannot Explain Where Assets Went, or Why Expenses Were Incurred?
If the numbers do not add up, the executor maybe found personally responsible for any shortfall. The court can “surcharge” the executor for the difference.
I am an Executor, How Can a Pennsylvania Probate Attorney Help me with an Accounting?
When filing an accounting, the Orphans’ Court requires the account to follow a specific format. The accounting must also be submitted with a specific petition. Further, accountings and the accompanying petitions may vary from County to County within Pennsylvania. An experienced Probate Attorney who focuses in accountings is familiar with these differences. It is better to provide the Orphans’ Court a Petition in the correct format, rather than having the judge find it incomplete and order the Petition refilled.
I am a Beneficiary, How Can a Pennsylvania Probate Attorney Help me with an Accounting?
At times an executor may refuse to provide a beneficiary with an acceptable accounting. The Orphans’ Court has created a system that allows a beneficiary to force the executor to provide an accounting. Our firm has been forcing executors to file Accountings for over 20 years and, once the accounting is obtained, our background in estate planning and tax allows us to help you interpret the accounting and search out discrepancies for your objections.
What Tax Returns Does a Philadelphia Executor File?
It is important that all tax returns are filed correctly and in a timely fashion. The Executor or Administrator is Personally Liable for errors that harm the beneficiaries. Filing a late tax return means interest and penalties for which the executor may be personally liable. When an executor hires a Probate Attorney that Lawyer’s primary job is to advise and protect the executor. Probate Lawyers are well versed in preparing all estate related tax returns and can help make sure all returns are filed correctly and timely. In Pennsylvania an executor may have to file the following returns:
Do I Need to Come to Pennsylvania to Probate the Will?
If you have the original will and an original death certificate, our firm can set up a process where you are sworn in as executor in your home county. There is no “reading of the will” required, so for most estates our clients never have to come to Pennsylvania.
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