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What Is Probate?

May 30, 2022 | Probate

When someone passes away in the state of Pennsylvania, probate may need to occur. Most Pennsylvania residents have never even heard the word “probate” until they’re dealing with a death in the family – they don’t know what it is, whether it’s good or bad, and what it means for them. As a probate law firm with over 14 years of experience, we are familiar with just how unfamiliar probate is to the average person, and we want to take this blog post to demystify the process.

If you’ve lost a loved one, we’re deeply sorry for your loss. We know how hard death can be already, and we want to do everything in our power to make it easier on you. Let’s explore – using simple terms, not lawyer jargon – what probate is and other things that you may need to know in order to simplify the legal journey ahead. 

What Is Probate?

Probate is a court process by which a deceased person’s estate (everything they own) is legally transferred to their beneficiaries (the people who will inherit their money, possessions, home, etc.). 

Think of it sort of as a system of checks and balances. It prevents anyone who wants to from just claiming the property of a deceased person for themselves; without probate, there would be no way of stopping them from doing so. The goal of probate is to make sure that the deceased person’s wishes (or state laws, if no wishes were made) controls who inherits what. Probate isn’t bad, but it is complicated, time-consuming, confusing, and stressful for grieving families. If you’ve just lost someone, the last thing you want to do is paperwork or legal tasks.

These legal tasks that usually will need to be completed as part of the probate process include:

  • Naming a personal representative to be in charge of the process (if there was a will, this person will usually be named; if not, the court will appoint one, and it will usually be the surviving spouse or other close family member),
  • Submitting the will to the court (if there was one) and letting them determine if it is valid,
  • Collecting, inventorying, and appraising your deceased loved one’s assets,
  • Sending formal notices to creditors and to any heirs,
  • Settling your deceased loved one’s remaining debts (note: this does not just mean paying them, as there are ways to negotiate the amount owed),
  • Filing a final tax return for your loved one’s estate, 
  • Paying remaining taxes, 
  • Communicating with the courts by meeting deadlines, filing paperwork, and paying fees,
  • Distributing your deceased loved one’s money and property to the heirs after the above tasks have been completed,
  • and Formally closing the estate.

Is Probate Always Necessary?

Probate doesn’t have to happen if you plan ahead (for the most part). Just having a will doesn’t stop probate from occurring, but there are other steps you can take to avoid it, such as making a trust, owning property jointly, making bank accounts “payable on death”, or naming beneficiaries directly on certain assets. However, your loved one may not have known to prepare this way, or may have run out of time; if they owned property in their own name and did not take any other steps, probate will likely need to happen for you and your other family members to receive your inheritance. Until probate is complete, you may not be able to renovate, sell, or move into your deceased loved one’s home, for example. 

Pennsylvania does offer the option for representatives to choose an expedited form of probate if the total value of your deceased loved one’s estate was less than $50,000. Otherwise, formal probate proceedings will probably have to occur (the full process). 

Factors That Influence How Complicated Your Probate Case Will Be

Probate is a long, involved process. It’s impossible to say how long it will take without discussing your specific case with you because there are many details and factors that could influence how many months it takes to reach a resolution. Some of the most common factors include: 

  • Whether or not you are working with an attorney – A probate attorney is your best bet for resolving probate as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Without an attorney, not only will you spend time trying to do all of the research on your own, but you may miss deadlines or make other mistakes that could lead to lawsuits and to additional fees, and that could prolong the process. If a dispute arises and you don’t have a lawyer on your side, that dispute could turn into a full-blown court battle, which isn’t going to make your probate journey any easier. 
  • How clear the will is – If the will isn’t compliant with state laws, or if the will is outdated, or if your deceased loved one didn’t have the mental capacity at the time of their writing it to fully understand it, then the will may be declared legally invalid, or other family members might contest it. 
  • How good family relations are –  If your family members are already prone to fighting, or if there is already a long-standing feud, the stress of probate (as well as the money aspects involved) can cause conflict, which could complicate the process. 
  • How large the estate is –  More assets and greater value of the assets involved usually means more decisions and more paperwork, which could prolong the process.
  • How much debt your deceased family member had – More debt usually means more creditors involved that you need to notify and settle with, which could prolong the process. 

Call Our Pennsylvania Probate Attorney For A Free Consultation!

Theoretically, you could attempt to navigate probate on your own, but having a Pennsylvania probate lawyer on your side will save you time, money, and stress. Daly Law Offices will work with you to explain your options and handle everything for you so you can focus on moving forward with life after loss. We can also help you plan for the future so that your family doesn’t have to go through probate when you pass away someday. Our goal is to give you peace of mind and all the legal support you need during a difficult time for you and your family. Our lead attorney, Joshua N. Daly, is a lifelong resident of the Lehigh Valley. Over his 14 years of practicing law, he has developed a passion for guiding grieving families through probate. Let Mr. Daly be your legal advocate – call his office today to request a free consultation, get your questions answered, and get started working towards the best resolution.

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