What Happens If You Die Without a Will in Pennsylvania?

Updated

Most people receive their first crash course in what probate is the first time a loved one dies. It may seem overwhelming, but many people have successfully navigated the process.

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The probate process involves tying up the loose ends of someone's financial affairs, including transferring the estate assets to the deceased’s heirs. Fortunately, if they didn’t leave a will, the process isn’t much more difficult, but the real difference lies in who inherits. Rather than relying on a will for guidance, you will turn to the state's intestacy laws to identify the heirs.

Pennsylvania's Intestacy Laws Explained

The state's intestacy laws establish the inheritance pattern for someone's property when there is no will.

Pennsylvania's probate laws only govern the deceased's probate estate, which is the portion of their assets that do not transfer automatically in other ways, like through trusts or payable-on-death beneficiaries. 

The probate laws create the procedure for appointing a personal representative who will administer the estate. The laws guide the personal representative's actions on behalf of the estate. The laws of intestacy determine who inherits the deceased's assets. 

The intestacy laws assume that, absent any other direction from the deceased, most people want their spouse or closest family members to inherit their property. The state also assumes the spouse contributed to the estate, and therefore they should certainly be entitled to inherit the bulk, if not all, of it.

As you can imagine, not all families work this way and not all people want this outcome, which is why you need to make a will. Wills allow you to allocate how you dole out your assets after death precisely as you like, rather than relying on the one-size-fits-all approach of the intestacy laws. 

What's not in the estate: non-probate transfers

Just because someone doesn't have a will doesn't mean that everything they own is automatically part of the probate estate. One of the most complicated emotional factors for many family members is the surprise that comes with learning what your loved one had and how it meets – or falls short of – your expectations. 

With some forethought, it's possible to set up your entire estate to transfer outside of probate, even without making a will or trust. We call these non-probate transfers. 

Non-probate transfers encompass a wide variety of asset types. However, for all these transfers, the deceased must have designated the successor-owner. The most common types of non-probate transfers include payable-on-death designations and joint tenancy ownership.

When you set up a new account, whether checking, retirement, or investment, you’re usually given an option to name a payable-on-death beneficiary for the account, a.k.a someone who will inherit the account when you die. If you didn't do this when setting up the account, you should still be able to do it through your online account access or by contacting the institution. These designations will allow the account balance to automatically transfer to the beneficiary upon your death, provided the beneficiary shows a death certificate and proof of their identity. 

Alternatively, non-probate transfers of property also happen with a jointly owned asset. Joint tenancy – more commonly known as joint tenancy with the right of survivorship – allows the surviving owner to retain sole possession of the property. You can find this designation on real estate, bank accounts, and even cars. 

How Does Probate Work in Pennsylvania If There Is No Will?

Identifying the non-probate transfers allows you to narrow down the assets that comprise the deceased's estate, and identify what still needs to be allocated. After getting an idea of the types of assets and the total value of the estate, you can better narrow down which probate process best serves your needs.

Probate - the appointment of a personal representative

Unless the estate you're working with falls under one of the exceptions below, it will likely go through the probate process. Even estates with a valid will go through probate because, ultimately, the purpose of probate is to appoint a personal representative for the estate so that one person has the authority to deal with all the estate assets and transactions. 

The court issues letters of administration to the personal representative, which serve as the personal representative's source of authority. Those letters allow the personal representative to open an estate bank account, collect the assets from anyone holding them, and make transactions on behalf of the estate. 

The personal representative is accountable to both the court and heirs, which mitigate them against acting in their own best interests or going rogue. In addition to finding and securing the deceased's assets, they also pay the estate's final bills and debts. 

The personal representative provides notice to the estate's creditors after death. This creates a finite amount of time for any creditor to come forward and make a claim against the estate. While the waiting period can be irritating for heirs anticipating money or property, properly dealing with creditors provides final closure from the estate and prevents creditors from unexpectedly coming forward in the future. 

Small estates

Heirs can collect small amounts of cash on behalf of the estate without assistance from the probate court. For example, banks and other financial institutions can release up to $10,000 to the deceased's heir when presented with a copy of the death certificate and proof of payment of funeral expenses. Similarly, employers can release up to $10,000 in wages or other due compensation to the spouse or another heir. 

If the deceased did not name a beneficiary for a life insurance policy, the policy could pay up to $11,000 in life insurance benefits to the surviving spouse or other heirs.

Simplified probate

For estates with less than $50,000 in assets, the personal representative can petition the court for a simplified probate process. The simplified process essentially fast-tracks the estate to let the personal representative immediately distribute the estate's assets.

Who Typically Inherits Assets in Pennsylvania If There Isn't a Will?

When someone dies without a will, that person's spouse and children, if any, are most likely to inherit. If they pass without a spouse and children, more distant relatives like their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins can end up inheriting the estate. 

In the rare event the state cannot identify any heirs, the property reverts to the state of Pennsylvania. If the personal representative can identify at least one heir, but cannot locate them to pass along the property, they may deposit the assets in the state's unclaimed property fund.

Under intestate succession, if the deceased was unmarried, the descendants inherit the entire estate. If the deceased was married but had no children or parents, the surviving spouse inherits everything. 

When a spouse and children survive, who inherits what depends on the children's relationship with the surviving spouse. It the deceased's children are the surviving spouse's children, the spouse inherits the first $30,000 of the estate plus one-half of the remainder. The descendants inherit the other half. 

If the deceased had children with someone other than the surviving spouse, the descendants and spouse equally divide the intestate estate.

The surviving spouse also has to share the estate with the deceased's parents if either of them survives the deceased; the surviving spouse inherits the first $30,000 plus one-half of the intestate estate. The parents inherit the other half.

Frequently Asked Questions: Dying Without a Will in Pennsylvania

In a perfect world, applying the intestacy laws would be a straightforward process, and it would be simple to identify the closest relatives or the spouse. But cases do become complex through unclear marriages, blended families, and predeceased heirs. If you have doubts about how the intestacy laws apply to your family, consult a probate attorney for specialized guidance.

What happens when your parent dies without a will?

When your unmarried parent dies without a will, you and your siblings inherit the entire estate. However, if your parent was married, you split the estate with your parent's spouse. 

The children's share depends on their relationship with the deceased's surviving spouse. If all of the deceased's children are the surviving spouse's children, then your surviving parent gets the first $30,000 of the estate. From there, you (and your siblings) inherit one-half of the remainder of the estate, and your surviving parent inherits the other half.

The ratio changes if your deceased parent had children with anyone other than their surviving spouse. If that happens, the spouse and children each get one-half of the estate. 

What are a surviving spouse's rights if there's no will?

The surviving spouse's share of the deceased's estate depends on who else survives the deceased. Regardless of the length of the marriage, the spouse will find themselves sharing the estate with the deceased's children or parents. They only inherit the entire estate if the deceased had no children and if their parents have already passed. 

If all of the deceased's children are also the surviving spouse's, then the spouse gets $30,000 plus one-half of the remainder of the estate, and the children split the other half. The same applies when the deceased had no children, but one or both of the deceased's parents survive them. 

If the deceased had children with anyone other than the surviving spouse, then the spouse only inherits one-half of the estate. The children inherit the other half. 

Are there any probate exemptions if you die without a will in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania offers some alternatives to the full probate process. 

First, the surviving spouse or another heir can collect up to $10,000 in a bank account and $10,000 in wages without filing with the probate court. 

Alternatively, the surviving spouse or heir can petition the court for a simplified probate process if the estate is worth less than $50,000. Doing so allows for the expedited payment of estate assets to the heirs.

Who is considered next of kin in Pennsylvania?

"Next of kin" is a colloquial term most often associated with determining who makes end-of-life decisions for someone incapacitated through age or injury. 

When dealing with the estate of someone who died, the court can appoint a personal representative to administer the estate. The surviving spouse has priority for appointment as personal representative, followed by the deceased's descendants, parents, siblings, and other family members.

Estate Plan to Avoid Unwanted Consequences

Like any other financial topic, estate planning can be an uncomfortable conversation to start with your spouse or other relatives. However, it is vital to have it, especially if you are uncertain or uninformed regarding your marriage's finances.

You and your spouse can take simple steps to ensure that you are both taken care of if either passes. In Pennsylvania, the intestacy laws may not pass along enough of the estate to the surviving spouse to take care of you for the remainder of your old age. 


Sources:
  1. "Title 20 Deceased's, Estates and Fiduciaries." Pennsylvania General Assembly, Legis.state.pa.us

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