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

Assets that Don't Need to Be Part of a 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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