Legal Toolkit Pennsylvania Probate, Estate and Elder Law

What to Know About Probate, Estate and Elder Law


Having a well-written, updated will or estate plan is the best protection against leaving a mess for your loved ones when you die. This is not a task to be left to your golden years. Without a will, your grieving loved ones will have difficult decisions to make without you there to help them navigate the issues. Even those people who have a small estate or a limited number of assets should still make out a will. Those who die without a will ("intestate"), are forecd to have the state choose an adminitrator for the estate, decide how asstes should be dispersed, and who should care for your minor children.Life is unpredictable; you could die unexpectedly or suddenly be struck incompetent. If you are struck incompetent before a will is written, you will no longer be legally able to make these end-of-life or estate plan decisions.


Those having a written will whose lives have since experienced any major changes (e.g. birth of children, divorce, death of spouse or child, second marriages, and financial changes), should have their estate plans assessed and updated by a probate attorney.


Estate planning refers to the creation of formal legal plans (wills and trusts) for distribution of assets or possessions after death and plans related to the care of surviving minor children and pets. Estate planning can also include formal documentation of your wishes related to healthcare and finances, and those empowered to carry them out, should you become incapacitated before your death. These "advance directives" may include living wills, durable power of attorney for health care and durable power of attorney for finances, durable mental health care declarations, and anatomical gift plans (organ and tissue donation). Experienced probate attorneys are able to assist you with the important legal considerations involved with estate planning, including the effect of family dynamics on a plan, navigation of the probate court process, and tax and creditor issues that may occur. These attorneys can help you achieve the best result for you and your heirs.


The cost of having a probate attorney create an estate plan for you generally depends on the size and complexity of your estate. The smaller and less complex the estate, the less expensive it typically is to have an attorney prepare a will or trust(s). Estates with more assets, potential taxes, or very detailed distribution plans will increase the cost of the estate plan. The following factors may also influence your final cost: size, type, and complexity of assets and estate holdings; how clear you are in your goals for your estate plan; how unusual your final plans may be related to heirs; how specific you want your property allocations to be (i.e. piece by piece or a percentage to each heir); how quickly you need the will or trust completed; how likely it is that your will may be contested (which might require extra work by the attorney to make things more bullet-proof); how experienced the attorney is; and where you live.


Do-it-yourself wills (via books, CDs, and online forms), are frequently touted as the easy solution for inexpensive estate planning. The reality is that a do-it-yourself will may seem inexpensive at first but can become quite expensive for heirs after your death if recognized as invalid by the probate court or if the will is contested. Furthermore, such a will, even if valid, may not carry out your intentions as hoped, as one size does not fit all when it comes to estate planning. Crafting an estate plan is much more than filling out forms; there are factors that attorneys will consider about your wishes, finances, family relationships, and probate laws in your state that will strongly affect the end result. Having a trained probate attorney write your will serves to insure that your estate will pass exactly as you wish. If your budget is tight, consider visiting a probate attorney with clear, simple goals in mind for your estate and requesting an appropriate but uncomplicated will.


Probate is the public court that is responsible for seeing that your wishes are honored after your death. If your intentions haven't been legally declared (if you die without a will), the court (and state law) will decide what is appropriate for your assets and heirs. In Allegheny County, Orphans' Court is responsible for probating wills, or, if there is no will, Letters of Administration are granted to the next of kin to enable them to administer the estate. When there is a valid will, probate courts determine and make all necessary creditor and tax payments for the estate and oversee the collection, maintenance, legal transfer, and distribution of probate assets to the heirs and beneficiaries of an estate based on the directions in the will. However, avoiding probate is sometimes recommended because of the increased administration, time, cost, and lack of privacy (probate records are public) involved with the probate process. To avoid or minimize probate, an estate plan many utilize trusts, life insurance policies, annuities and retirement plans with designated beneficiaries who are immediately and privately paid upon death, thereby avoiding the probate process. include funding non-probate financial vehicles like trusts, life insurance policies, annuities, and retirement plans, with designated beneficiaries, who are immediately and privately paid upon death.


In Allegheny County, Probate fees will depend on the size of the estate.


Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax is based on the relationship of the beneficiary to the deceased. Federal Estate Tax, sometimes known as inheritance tax, applies to sizeable taxable estates (gross estate minus allowable deductions) passing to persons other than a surviving spouse or a qualified charity (these types of bequests are not subject to estate tax). Your gross estate usually includes all property in which you had an interest at the time of  death; life insurance, annuities, trusts, and other financial interests payable to your estate; and the value of certain interests in property transferred to you by others within 3 years prior to your death.


Federal Estate Tax Laws and Gift Laws have changed significantly in the past few years. A thorough discussion with a seasoned probate and estate practitioner will ensure that you and any of your potential beneficiaries have the smoothest experience possible when making and finalizing any estate plan.