What is the probate process like in Pennsylvania?

When someone dies, those left behind have both practical and emotional needs to consider. The practical needs of those grieving can include reworking the division of household responsibilities and the family budget to account for the loss of someone’s contributions. Family members also have to prepare for a memorial service and sometimes also for probate court.

Many people find the idea of going to probate court rather intimidating. But, when people understand what to expect from the Pennsylvania probate process, it may become less of a challenge.

Not all estates require probate court

While some people claim that the probate courts oversee every estate, that is a bit of an oversimplification. Some estates in Pennsylvania require minimal time in the probate courts. If someone dies with a limited amount of personal property, their estate may qualify for simplified probate proceedings. If the total value of someone’s assets at the time of their death is $50,000 or less, then full probate proceedings are likely unnecessary.

Individuals who draft wills can take control of what happens to their property. Those with more involved estate plans, including those that use trusts, can often keep their biggest assets out of probate court. Changing the ownership of certain assets can reduce the value of the estate to low enough that full probate oversight is not necessary.

What does the process involve?

Probate proceedings are different with every estate, as the assets someone holds, their family relationships and what, if any, testamentary documents they left will be vastly different from case to case. Probate proceedings can take anywhere from three to six months in simplest cases to more than two years if there is a will contest or other litigation occurs.

During the probate process, the courts approve a personal representative selected by the decedent or appoint someone to that role. That individual will need to submit key documents to the courts, communicate with creditors, follow estate plan instructions and distribute resources to beneficiaries. Generally speaking, the personal representatives must comply with state law and the testamentary documents. Family members questioning the validity of documents or the actions of a personal representative sometimes choose to litigate. Other times, people die without an estate plan, and the probate courts must apply intestate succession laws to the distribution of their property.

Seeking legal guidance about a specific situation and information about Pennsylvania probate laws may help people better navigate what can be a very complex legal process.