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The Probate Process in Pennsylvania

Probate Title On Legal Documents

If your loved one has died and had a will in place, you may be uncertain about your rights and responsibilities. Will the will need to be filed with the probate court? What is the purpose of probate and what happens during the probate process?

What Is Probate Administration?

The probate process is designed to ensure the supervised settlement of your estate after your death. That includes both the payment of all final debts and the orderly distribution of any property that you own. It’s important to understand that, if you own property as a joint tenant with another person, such as a spouse or child, that property will automatically pass to any surviving joint tenants and will not need to be distributed through the probate court. In addition, any property held in trust at the time of your death will not be subject to probate. Financial accounts, such as checking or savings accounts, that have a “payable on death,” or POD provision, also avoid probate.

However, if you have property that carries documents of title, or where you have sole access, such as an individually titled bank account, ownership of those assets cannot be transferred without the intervention of the probate court. As a part of the probate process, the court will issue what are generally referred to as “letters testamentary,” which allow property of a decedent to be conveyed.

In Pennsylvania, there are two different processes available to settle an estate. If the total value of property is less than $50,000, you can go through what is known as simplified probate. For larger estates, the process is more involved.

The probate process begins when the executor files the will at the office of the Register of Wills in the county where the deceased lived at time of death. There’s a filing fee that must be paid at that time. The court then issues the letters testamentary, which give the executor the power to collect assets and start settling the estate. The executor must provide notice to heirs, beneficiaries, creditors and the general public, and will then prepare an inventory of the assets of the estate. Inheritance taxes must then be paid, and property distributed. The executor then files a final accounting of the estate.

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The Difference between a Will and a Trust

People going over a document

If you’ve decided that it’s time to put an effective estate plan in place, to properly prepare for the orderly distribution of your assets in the event of your death, you’ve likely seen or heard references to the use of certain dispositive instruments—wills and trusts. But you may not have a clear understanding of the difference between the two estate planning tools and which might be best for your situation.

What Is a Will?

Also known as a “last will and testament,” this document includes specific instructions with respect to the distribution of your assets, as well as your debts. It’s also customary to include designation of a guardian for any minor children in your will. However, your will only goes into effect in the event of your death. Your will cannot be used to transfer property or institute any other legal action during your lifetime.

If you use a will to convey the property in your estate, it may be subject to probate. Your heirs may choose not to take your will through the probate courts, but any interested party always has the right to seek the authority of the probate court to settle your estate.
The preparation and execution of a will is typically a much simpler process than a trust, so there’s usually less expense upfront. However, because of the probate requirement, your heirs can end up paying more after your death.

What Is a Trust?

In essence, a trust is a separate legal entity that can hold property. The trust is created by a trust document, and names a trustee. Because the trust is a separate legal entity, you no longer own any property that you transfer to the trust. Because the probate process is set up to resolve the transfer of your property, and because you no longer own property placed in trust, any property placed in trust avoids the probate process.

A trust can be “inter vivos” or testamentary. An inter vivos trust goes into effect during your lifetime, allowing you to transfer assets before your death. A testamentary trust is created upon your death, with assets typically transferred to the trust by your will.
The preparation and execution of a trust is a far more complex process than the preparation of a will. Accordingly, there’s typically more upfront expense involved. However, because property transferred into a trust escapes probate, there’s less expense to your heirs after your death.

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What to Do When You Have Been in a Car Accident

Man feeling pain to the neck after car crash

If you’ve never been in a car accident, count yourself lucky…the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the average American is involved in four accidents during his or her lifetime.

When you’ve been hurt because of the carelessness or negligence of another motorist, it’s critical that you take specific steps to protect yourself. Here’s a checklist:

  • Step #1 — Get the Medical Treatment You Need
  • This is far and away the most important thing to do after a motor vehicle accident. It’s important to remember, too, that it’s not the time to be strong or stoic—it’s the time to accept and acknowledge your injuries and get all the treatment you need. If you can’t move around under your own power, or if you are in significant pain or discomfort, wait until emergency medical technicians arrive. Don’t try to diagnose your injury—they are the professionals and know how to do that. They also know what you need to do to avoid making your condition worse.

    Get medical treatment as soon as possible, even if it’s not at the site of the crash. Immediately take yourself to the hospital, an urgent care facility or set up an appointment with your doctor. The longer you wait, the greater the risk of two things—that you’ll have an intervening accident or injury that will allow defense attorneys to shift blame; or that it will appear to a jury that your injuries were not that serious.

  • Step #2 — Gather Information
  • The more information you can get, the better, particularly if you need to file a personal injury claim to get full and fair compensation for your losses. Get contact information for anyone involved in the accident, as well as all witnesses. Take pictures of everything, including the damage to all vehicles, any injuries suffered, road markings (skids or gouges), weather conditions or roadway defects. The camera on your phone is fine…just get the pictures.

  • Step #3 — Hire an Experienced Lawyer
  • You want an attorney who has successfully handled motor vehicle accident claims, who knows what to expect from insurance companies and defense counsel, who can accurately determine the value of your claim. You also want to hire a lawyer as soon as possible, so that you can preserve all relevant evidence.

    Contact Our Experienced Motor Vehicle Accident Attorneys

    Send us an e-mail or call our office to schedule an appointment to learn how we can help with a motor vehicle accident claim. Evening and weekend consultations are available upon request.

Veterans Health Care Benefits—An Overview

Veterans-Health

If you have served your country, you are entitled to a wide range of benefits. Some benefits may be based on financial need and the benefits available to you can vary based on when, where and how long you served. One of the most important benefits available to former service members is health care.

Health Care Benefits for Veterans

If you have been honorably discharged from active service, chances are good that you are eligible for health care at one of the VA hospitals or clinics across the nation. If you served before September 7, 1980, there’s no minimum service requirement. However, if you enlisted after that date, you will only be eligible for health care benefits if you served a minimum of 24 months of uninterrupted duty (unless you were discharged for a service-related disability).

To receive health care benefits, you normally have to apply. There are circumstances, though, where you will be entitled to health care benefits automatically:

  • If the care you are receiving is exclusively for a service-related disability, injury or illness
  • If your service-related disability has been rated at 50% or higher
  • If the Veterans Administration has determined that your disability is service-related, but has not issued a disability rating

Veteran’s Access to Health Care

Because the VA lacks the resources to provide the necessary care to all who require it and qualify, a priority system has been established to determine who gets treated first. As a general rule, the higher your disability rating, the higher your priority for treatment. In addition, if you have been a prisoner of war or have received certain medals or honors for your service (a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor, for example), you’ll be given special priority. Veterans who have been discharged within five years of enrollment are also eligible for enhanced health care access.

Contact Our Experienced Veterans Benefits Attorneys

Send us an e-mail or call our office to arrange a meeting to discuss your rights to veterans benefits. Evening and weekend consultations are available upon request.

Social Security Disability Claims—The Basics

 Security Disability

If you have been hurt or are suffering an illness that prevents you from working, you may be eligible to collect Social Security disability benefits, even though the injury or illness is not work-related. Under the Social Security system, you may be eligible for two different types of benefits.

Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI

Social Security disability insurance is available to persons with disabilities that prevent them from working and earning income. To qualify for SSDI, you must have a disability, as defined by the Social Security Administration. That disability must be permanent, must prevent you from working for at least 12 months, or must be expected to lead to your death. In addition, you must have accumulated enough Social Security credits to qualify. To do so, you must generally work in a job where you contribute to the Social Security system through the payment of FICA taxes. The number of credits you need will depend on your age and when you became disabled. If you collect Social Security disability benefits for at least 24 months, you will qualify for insurance coverage through Medicare, with no age restrictions.

Supplemental Security Income, or SSI

The qualifications for Supplemental Security income vary from state to state, so you’ll need to learn what your particular state provides. Under the guidelines, though, you must meet all of the following tests to be eligible for payments through SSI:

  • You must be at least 65, or you must be blind or disabled
  • You must generally be a citizen of the United States—there are very limited exceptions to this that an attorney can explain to you
  • Because SSI is need-based, you must not have significant earned income—most states limit you to $1,400 or less per month
  • You cannot own more than $2,000 worth of property ($3,000 for a married couple)

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Reasons Why a Workers’ Compensation Claim May Be Turned Down

Reasons Why a Workers' Compensation Claim May Be Turned Down

In the aftermath of a work-related injury, one of your first courses of action will typically be to notify your employer and initiate the necessary steps to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. Though your claim may often seem pretty straightforward, it’s not at all uncommon for your application for benefits to be denied. Here are some of the more typical reasons why so many workers’ compensation claims are initially rejected.

You Waited Too Long to Notify Your Employer

Under the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation laws, you must provide notice to your employer within a specific time period. Accordingly, you’ll want to let your employer know about an injury or illness as soon as you know about it. Not only will you risk having your claim rejected outright for failure to timely file, but you also give opposing attorneys grounds for arguing that your injury wasn’t that serious or that it was caused by another event.

Your Claim Is Challenged

There are a number of reasons your employer or the workers’ compensation insurance company may contest your claim. Your employer may argue that the injury was not work-related, that you suffered the trauma while away from the job. Your employer may allege that your injuries are not as serious as you say they are, and may introduce evidence from a company doctor to support that claim (you will be required to submit to an “independent” examination from a company-selected doctor once you’ve notified your employer of the injury or illness).

Your employer may also claim that your injury was pre-existing. Under Pennsylvania law, a pre-existing injury will not bar you from eligibility for workers’ compensation benefits, provided you sought treatment for and fully recovered from the prior injury.

You Engaged in Wrongful Conduct

As a general rule, workers’ compensation benefits are available irrespective of fault. However, if you intentionally violate safe work practices, or if you intentionally self-inflict injuries, you will likely be disqualified for workers’ compensation benefits.

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Seasons Greetings and Happy New Year!

Happy New year 2018

Assets that Don’t Need to Be Part of a Probate Estate in Pennsylvania

Probate Estate

If you have been named executor or administrator of an estate in Pennsylvania, you may have no idea of what that entails, or how much time and effort you’ll need to spend to settle the estate. You’ll have to prepare an accounting of the assets of the estate, notify all interested parties, pay all final debts and taxes, and oversee the orderly distribution of the estate. But not all of the assets owned by the deceased before death will necessarily become part of the probate estate.

The Types of Assets Are Not Included in the Probate Estate

One of the purposes of the probate process is to legally transfer property owned by the deceased, as he or she can no longer take the steps necessary to do that. Accordingly, if there’s property that was owned, in whole or in part, by the decedent, but no longer is, that property does not need to go through probate. How can that happen? Under property law, if property is owned “in joint tenancy,” upon the death of one of the owners, all right, title and interest in the property automatically goes to the other owners. It’s a common tool used to avoid the probate process—you title a home or a bank account jointly, and when you die, it automatically becomes the property of the other joint tenant(s).

Any financial instrument or asset that has its own designated beneficiary does not need to go through probate. For example, a life insurance policy, an IRA or 401k, or a “payable on death” bank account won’t have to be part of the probate estate.

Finally, any assets held in trust avoid probate. That’s because the property is not owned by the deceased, but by the trust.

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Third Party Claims for Work-Related Injuries

Work-Related Injuries

In Pennsylvania, as in other states, when you are injured on the job, your first course of action will be typically to file a workers’ compensation claim. In many instances, it will be your exclusive remedy, meaning it will be the only method of recovery for your injuries. There are, however, situations where you won’t be limited to what you can recover through a workers’ compensation claim, and there may even be times where you can file a workers’ compensation and a personal injury lawsuit simultaneously. Here’s how it works.

One of the goals of state workers’ compensation laws—often referred to as the “great bargain,” is to provide a benefit for both workers and employers when a worker is hurt because of the carelessness or negligence of the employer. For a worker, there’s easier and quicker access to benefits, provided your claim is approved. For an employer, because the benefits are based on the worker’s wages, there’s no risk of an exorbitant damage award from an over-sympathetic jury.

The important thing to understand, though, is that workers’ compensation benefits are designed to cover situations where the employer or a co-employee was negligent. It does not limit your rights if your injury was caused by an unrelated third party. Some common situations where workers are hurt by the carelessness of an unrelated third party include:

  • Where your injury was sustained in a motor vehicle accident involving an at-fault party who is neither your employer nor a co-worker
  • Where your injury is caused by the malfunction, breakdown or negligent design of a tool, machine or other product
  • Where your injury was caused by a person on an adjoining work site, or by an unrelated bystander or third party

It is possible, if your injury was caused in part by the carelessness of your employer or a co-employee, and in part by an unrelated third party, to simultaneously seek workers’ compensation benefits and damages in a personal injury lawsuit. It’s important to recognize, however, that you cannot recover twice for the same loss. For example, if your medical expenses were covered by workers’ compensation, you cannot recover for the same medical expenses in a lawsuit against a third party.

Contact Our Experienced Workers’ Compensation Attorneys

Send us an e-mail or call our office to schedule an appointment to learn how we can help with a workers’ compensation claim. Evening and weekend consultations are available upon request.

The Purpose of Title Insurance in a Real Estate Transaction

The Purpose of Title Insurance in a Real Estate Transaction

When you are buying or selling real property, one of the things your agent or attorney will typically discuss with you is the title insurance. You may think that, if you have a valid deed and have properly recorded it, you don’t have any concerns about title. That may not be true.

Understanding Title Insurance

Like other forms of insurance, title insurance is designed to protect you against financial loss. The financial loss that can be covered by title insurance relates specifically to title problems that arise and can include a variety of issues, such as:

  • Financial loss caused by the fact that the seller (transferor) did not legally own the property when it was sold
  • Financial loss resulting when there are outstanding liens on the property, including unpaid mortgages or other encumbrances that give creditors the right to take the property through a foreclosure action
  • Financial loss caused by interruptions in the chain of title, including instances where the owner of the property died, but the property was not legally transferred through the probate process
  • Financial loss caused by tax liens

If you have a policy of title insurance in effect and a lawsuit is filed related to any of the above issues, the title insurance company will be required to defend the action and must satisfy any judgments that arise. Without a policy of title insurance, your only recourse in such a situation would be to sue the other party to the transaction. That party may be unable to satisfy any judgment you obtain.

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