What Happens In Pennsylvania If Someone Dies Without A Will?

Jan 3, 2023 | Estate Planning

If you have recently experienced the death of a loved one and are searching for information or advice on what to do next in order to settle their affairs, let us first express our deepest condolences for your loss. Death can be difficult and confusing for family members left behind, not just emotionally, but also legally and financially…and especially if your loved one passed away without a last will and testament, it can become incredibly complicated. 

You deserve to find closure as quickly and efficiently as possible so you can move forward with your life after loss. At Daly Law Offices, we understand and can sympathize with what you are going through. Our experienced probate and estate planning attorney can explain how Pennsylvania’s intestate and probate and trust administration laws work (depending on which apply to your unique situation) and advise you on how to best proceed. Keep reading to learn what your next steps should be if someone in your family died without a will. 

If They Had Other Legal Documents, Such As A Trust…

Sometimes, not having a will isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing; if your loved one instead had an estate plan that included a trust, or had set up a standalone trust, then a will may not have been necessary. 

A trust is a financial entity that manages assets and provides for their eventual distribution according to the terms of the trust. Your family member would have been the grantor, or creator, of the trust; they would have designated a trustee to help manage the assets (which may have been themselves, although there would have been a backup trustee) and also designated beneficiaries (which may have included themselves but would have also included others). 

Trust administration is the process of executing the terms of the trust and paying out the assets inside to the beneficiaries. If your loved one didn’t have a will, but did have a trust, this may be beneficial for you and your family, because trust administration is a much simpler and more private process than probate (the Pennsylvania court process for executing the terms of a will). 

If They Didn’t Have Any Preparations In Place…

If your loved one did not have any trust or estate plan set up before their death, either because they did not realize that they needed to plan ahead in those ways or because they ran out of time to do so, then Pennsylvania state laws will control what happens to their assets that are owned in their name only. Their estate will still have to go through the probate court process, even though there isn’t a will.

However, not all of their assets will have to go through probate. Life insurance proceeds, funds in an IRA or 401k, securities in a transfer-on-death account or payable-on-death bank accounts, real estate that has a transfer-on-death deed, vehicles that have transfer-on-death registrations, any any property or assets that was owned in conjunction with someone else (in joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety), will immediately pass to the named beneficiaries or to the surviving co-owner, so long as they are still living. 

Pennsylvania’s Intestate Laws

Pennsylvania’s laws that determine how the assets of a deceased person’s estate are distributed if there was no will (or if the co-owners/beneficiaries on other assets are also deceased) are known as “intestate” laws. 

Generally, they provide for the following types of asset transfers. If your loved one passed away…

  • With children, but with no spouse or no living spouse – their children will inherit everything, getting a share of their estate. The size of each child’s share depends on a variety of different factors such as the number of children and parental heritage of each child.
  • With a spouse, but with no children or parents – their spouse will inherit the entire estate. 
  • With children and a spouse, the children being from your deceased relative and their spouse – their spouse will inherit the first $30,000 of the estate and ½ of the balance, while the children will inherit shares of everything else. 
  • With a spouse and parents, but no children – the spouse will inherit the first $30,000 of the estate and ½ of the balance, while the parents will inherit the remaining assets. 
  • With a spouse and children who are from your deceased relative but not from the spouse – the spouse will inherit ½ of the estate, and the children will inherit shares of everything else
  • With parents, but no spouse or children – the parents will inherit the entire estate (or split the estate if they are divorced/separated). 
  • With siblings, but no spouse, children, or parents – the siblings will inherit equal shares of everything. 

There are many nuances involved in Pennsylvania intestate laws when someone dies without a will.

For example, if your loved one passed away during divorce proceedings, their estate will likely be treated as if the spouse were no longer legally related to them. Foster children and stepchildren who were never formally adopted will not be eligible to receive shares of the estate. If your loved one wasn’t married to their child’s parent (or your parent, if you are the child), they/you will only get shares of the estate if they were publicly claimed and financially supported by your loved one or if paternity had been proved. Half-relatives will inherit as if they were “whole” relatives, particularly in the cases of siblings who inherit their deceased sibling’s property. Immigration status is not a factor when it comes to inheritance without a will; relatives who are entitled under intestate laws will inherit whether or not they are legal residents.

Understandably, no one wants intestate laws to have to regulate how the estate is distributed, because every family is different and the laws don’t know the unique dynamics. For example, imagine that your loved one had four children, and three were estranged; one child took care of them and always visited them, but the others barely spoke to them. If they passed away without a will, the children would inherit equal shares under the law, even though this isn’t exactly “fair” to the child who was the closest to the parent, and likely would not have been what the parent wanted. 

Daly Law Offices Can Help. 

If you are navigating probate without a will to clarify your loved one’s wishes, or if you need to get a will and/or trust in place so your family doesn’t have to go through the same stress when you pass away, we can help! Attorney Joshua N. Daly of Daly Law Offices has been helping Pennsylvania residents get their affairs in order and settle deceased loved ones’ affairs for over 15 years. He can explain your options and advocate for the best possible resolution. Call today to book a free consultation and learn more! 

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