Following the steps below may help.
1. Determine whether the deceased had a will and, if so, find the original.
Generally speaking, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to probate a copy of a will, so finding the original is important. It may be located among important papers in the deceased's house or office, with his or her lawyer, or in a bank safety deposit box.
A will is helpful because it usually simplifies the probate process, if probate is necessary. If not, distribution of the estate (who gets what) is controlled by Pennsylvania law. For example, if there is no will and decedent has no surviving spouse or parents, the estate is divided evenly among his or her children.
2. Determine whether probate is necessary.
Probate is the court-administered process by which assets (money, property, etc.) owned by the decedent at the dime of death are transferred or retitled to their new owners, either in accordance with the will, or if there is no will, in accordance with Pennsylvania law.
When Probate May Not Be Necessary
Scenario 1: Probate may not be necessary if the decedent did not own anything at the time of their passing. For example, if his or her only asset was a home and a bank account, and both were jointly owned with a spouse, full ownership of those assets go immediately to the spouse upon death. They are not considered owned by the decedent personally and do not become part of the estate for the purposes of probate.
Scenario 2: Probate may not be necessary if the decedent had in place a revocable trust-centered estate plan and ownership of all the decedent's assets was transferred to the trust during the decedent's life. In a similar manner as described in scenario 1, the decedent in this case does not technically own any assets at the time of death; instead, they are owned by the trust and distributed according to its terms.
Otherwise, Probate is Likely Necessary
Failing these or other related scenarios, probate is necessary because property owned by the decedent must change hands.
3. Hire an attorney to help.
Most people hire an attorney to help with the probate process because, while not rocket science, it is technical and personal liability to an executor (if there was a will) or administrator (if there was no will) can result from mishandling of assets in the estate, or failing to adequately protect those assets. The first step is to petition the local register of wills for "letters testamentary" (if there was a will) or "letters of administration" (if there was no will). Pennsylvania also charges an inheritance tax on the taxable estate and requires the estate to file an Inheritance Tax Return.
These requirements can be difficult for the uninitiated to juggle, so whether it is Chestnut Hill Legal or someone else, we always recommend getting the help of an experienced attorney.
Interested in hiring Chestnut Hill Legal?
We offer free consultations and simple, flat fee pricing.
$1,500 up-front. $2,500 upon opening the estate.
Fees can usually be paid out of the estate and, once the estate is open, you can be reimbursed for the up-front cost.
To get started, submit the form below or call owner Louis P. DiLello, Esq. at (610) 999-2319.