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It is possible for a spouse intentionally left out of the other spouse’s will to still receive a share of the estate in the event of death. Pennsylvania law provides for an “elective share” pursuant to 20 Pa. C.S. 2203(a). This law provides that if a person is still married at the time of their death with no divorce pending, the surviving spouse can elect to receive 1/3 of that person’s estate. There are items that are excluded from the estate in instances where an elective share will be applied. 2203(b) states the following exceptions: (1) any conveyance made with the express consent or joinder of the surviving spouse; (2) the proceeds of insurance, including accidental death benefits, on the life of the decedent; (3) interests under any broad-based nondiscriminatory pension, profit sharing, stock bonus, deferred compensation, disability, death benefit or other such plan established by an employer for benefit of its employees and their beneficiaries; (4) property passing by the decedent’s exercise or non-exercise of any power of appointment given by someone other than the decedent.

To simplify, a surviving spouse cannot receive any portion of something that they already agreed to give away by way of previously consenting to it. As it relates to subsections (2), (3) and (4), accounts that have a beneficiary designation will pass to the named beneficiary. Additionally, the surviving spouse waives the right to seek other items they may have been entitled to if they choose to exercise the elective share. The surviving spouse must reduce to writing their intent to exercise the elective share and timely file with the court. Either spouse may waive their right to exercise the elective share before or during the marriage or even after death of their spouse. This waiver could be included in a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement, for example. It is wise to consult with an attorney to see if choosing the elective share is the best outcome if you are left out of a spouse’s will.

After a family member’s death, the first step should be to determine if they had a last will and testament. If so, you will want to locate the original will and make sure it has been properly signed and witnessed. The named executor will need to go to the Register of Wills with the original will, photo identification, and some method of payment to open the estate. If the named executor does not want to act they can sign a renunciation which would allow someone else to take on the role. The Register of Wills will give the executor a short certificate of letters testamentary. This document authorizes the executor to handle the decedent’s estate. If a loved one has passed away without a will, the Pennsylvania laws on intestacy will govern how their estate is handled. The closest kin can apply to the Register of Wills to be designated as the administrator of the estate. They will also be granted a short certificate as proof of their authority to handle the estate.

The executor or administrator has the responsibility for identifying and managing all the assets and debts as well as identifying beneficiaries and their contact information. Notice should be provided to all possible beneficiaries. Notice should also be provided to all possible debtors by publishing notice in the local law reporter as well as a local newspaper of general circulation. The executor or administrator should notify social security, employer(s), banks, insurance companies, retirement plans, etc. regarding the death of the decedent. Ideally within three months of the date of death, the executor or administrator should pay estimated taxes on the estate to get a discount. Taxes for the estate will depend on the size of the estate. A federal estate identification number should be obtained. The executor or administrator also needs to make sure the final individual tax return for the decedent is prepared and filed in addition to the inheritance tax return.

Pennsylvania does apply a tax on assets passed through probate or intestacy. The amount of tax depends on the value of the estate as well as the relationship of the beneficiaries to the decedent. There is no tax imposed for assets passing to a surviving spouse or to a child under 21 years old. There is a 4.5% tax for assets passing to children over 21, parents or grandparents. There is a 12% tax for assets passing to siblings. There is a 15% tax for all other transfers including to aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins or persons of no relation. There are some institutions exempt from the inheritance tax including certain government entities and charitable organizations.

Inheritance taxes are to be paid within nine months from the date of death of the decedent to avoid any penalty. A 5% discount on the tax is extended for returns filed within three months from date of death. Assets passing outside of the will or the rules of intestacy are not subject to the inheritance tax. Popular examples of assets passing outside of the will are life insurance policies, retirement plans and other assets with a designated beneficiary. Additionally, assets jointly owned with rights of survivorship will automatically pass to the surviving owner.

An inventory must be filed with the court in administering an estate. The inventory should identify all probate assets of the decedent at the time of death. This may require some investigation by the executor. A good starting point is to monitor the decedent’s mail for evidence of statements for accounts. In an increasingly electronic society, however, access to digital accounts may be more productive as more and more parties elect for email correspondence over hard copies in the mail.

The inventory should include the value of the assets listed as of the decedent’s death. The inventory is to be filed with the court within nine (9) months from the date of death unless an extension is granted.

If additional assets are discovered after filing the initial inventory a supplemental inventory should be filed with the court. The amount of tax due depends on the value of the estate. Accordingly, the inventory and inheritance tax return are usually filed together. There is a form available for use in Pennsylvania on the Unified Judicial System website. Alternatively, items on Schedule A – E of the inheritance tax return can serve as the list of assets for the inventory.

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Not every asset owned by a party at the time of death will be subject to the probate process or pass under the direction of the will. Probate assets are those for which there is no pre-existing designation as to who should get the asset. Examples of typical assets that will be subject to probate include individually owned bank accounts, cars, personal property, business interest, real property held as tenants in common, cash, and life insurance with no beneficiary. These types of assets should be distinguished from any account with a beneficiary designation as those accounts will pass to the beneficiary. Also, joint accounts will usually go to the other party whose name is on the account.

Assets that are put into joint names within a year of date of death can still be subject to inheritance tax on the full amount of the account though ultimately a non-probate asset. If assets have been put into joint names over a year from date of death then only 50% of the account would be taxed. Ideally, you should plan for how those taxes will be apportioned. Business interests may also end up being non-probate if there is a partnership agreement spelling out what happens in the event of death. If there is a buy-out of the decedent’s interest, that is taxable and should be listed on the inheritance tax return. Where the decedent’s interest is just assumed by the remaining partners in the business then there is no tax and no need to do probate.

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The executor of your will is the person designated to be responsible for the administration of your estate. They are required to act in a fiduciary capacity and carry out the wishes as stated in the will. It is a good idea to talk to your executor about your desires regarding your assets and debts as stated in the will. Your executor or other trustworthy party should know where the original will is kept as well. The executor will need to take the will to the Register of Wills to open the estate and be formally recognized as the party authorized to handle the estate. From there, the executor will need to identify all the assets and debts the decedent had at the time of death. An inventory will need to be filed with the court.

The executor should also notify social security, employer(s), banks, insurance companies, retirement plans, etc. regarding the death of the decedent. The executor is responsible for safekeeping and/or maintenance of the estate until the time of distribution. The executor should review the will to identify all possible beneficiaries as they will need to be notified. The executor will usually open an estate bank account to consolidate assets and be able to pay necessary bills and taxes. The last income tax return for the decedent needs to be filed as well as an inheritance tax return. The executor must keep detailed records of all transactions that occur as an accounting is usually part of the final process of distributing and closing the estate. Executors may receive financial compensation for their services. An executor may also elect to retain an attorney to ensure the proper administration of the state in lieu of undertaking the responsibility on their own.

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Formal administration involves handling the entire process through the courts. After the short certificate, the executor or administrator needs to notify all possible beneficiaries. They will also need to notify all possible debtors by publishing notice in the local law reporter as well as a local newspaper of general circulation. The executor or administrator should also notify social security, employer(s), banks, insurance companies, retirement plans, etc. regarding the death of the decedent.

Within three months of the date of death, the executor or administrator should pay estimated taxes on the estate to get a discount. Taxes for the estate will depend on the size of the estate. It is best to underestimate and potentially have to supplement later on than to overpay and risk not being able to get that money back from the government. A federal estate identification number should be obtained. The executor or administrator needs to make sure the final individual tax return for the decedent is prepared and filed in addition to the inheritance tax return. An inventory of the estate should be filed with the court along with a detailed accounting of all expenses of the estate and a proposed distribution of the remainder of the estate to close it out. Distributions should generally not be made until approx. a year after notice to allow creditors to make any valid claims against the estate prior to disbursement.

Click here to read more about probate of an estate.

If a loved one has passed away without a will, the laws of intestacy will govern how their estate is handled. The closest kin can apply to the Register of Wills to be designated as the administrator of the estate. They will also be granted a short certificate has proof of their authority to handle the estate.

The administrator would then have the responsibility for identifying all the assets and debts as well as beneficiaries and their contact information and maintaining the estate until final distribution. If the decedent was married and does not have any children or surviving parents, the entire estate goes to their surviving spouse. If there were parents, the first $30,000 goes to the surviving spouse as well as half of the remainder of the estate.

If there are children of the marriage, the first $30,000 goes to the surviving spouse as well as half of the remainder of the estate also. If there are children of the decedent only, the surviving spouse gets half of the estate. The remaining half of the estate, or in the event the decedent is not married, the entire estate, shall pass in the following order: (1) to the decedent’s children; (2) to the decedent’s parents; (3) to the decedent’s siblings or their children; (4) to the decedent’s grandparents; (5) to the decedent’s aunts and uncles and their children and grandchildren. If there are multiple persons in a category, they will each receive equal shares such that a decedent with three children would have the estate separated into thirds.

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It is possible for a spouse intentionally left out of the other spouse’s will to still receive a share of the estate in the event of death. Pennsylvania law provides for an “elective share” pursuant to 20 Pa. C.S. 2203(a). This law provides that if a person is still married at the time of their death with no divorce pending, the surviving spouse can elect to receive 1/3 of that person’s estate. There are items that are excluded from the estate instances where an elective share will be applied. 2203(b) states the following exceptions: (1) any conveyance made with the express consent or joinder of the surviving spouse; (2) the proceeds of insurance, including accidental death benefits, on the life of the decedent; (3) interests under any broad-based nondiscriminatory pension, profit sharing, stock bonus, deferred compensation, disability, death benefit or other such plan established by an employer for benefit of its employees and their beneficiaries; (4) property passing by the decedent’s exercise or nonexercise of any power of appointment given by someone other than the decedent.

To simplify, a surviving spouse cannot receive any portion of something that they already agreed to give away by way of previously consenting to it. As it relates to subsections (2), (3) and (4), accounts that have a beneficiary designation will pass to the named beneficiary. Additionally, the surviving spouse waives the right to seek other items they may have been entitled to if they choose to exercise the elective share. The surviving spouse must reduce to writing their intent to exercise the elective share and timely file with the court. Either spouse may waive their right to exercise the elective share before or during the marriage or even after death of their spouse. It is wise to consult with an attorney to see if choosing the elective share is the best outcome if you are left out of a spouse’s will.

Click here to read more on Estates and Probates.