Q: A member of my family recently died, and I am in charge of handling the estate. What happens next?
When someone dies with a will, the person named as executor in the will must “probate” the will. The term probate means the official proving of a will’s validity, but lawyers frequently use it to refer generally to the bureaucratic process of administering an estate, from opening the estate to settling it. Although the word probate relates specifically to wills, when someone dies without a will, the administrator of such an estate must follow similar steps.
The first step, before probate, is identifying the estate’s personal representative, who will be the only person with the authority to open and administer the estate. If there is a will, it should name one or more executors to act on the estate’s behalf. If there is no will, then the estate’s heirs can either share the responsibility of acting as the administrators of the estate, or elect to name a single administrator to handle its affairs.
If you are not destined to be the estate’s personal representative, be thankful and give the executor or administrator the time they need to settle the estate. Family members and beneficiaries are often anxious to receive property from an estate, but they tend to unrealistically expect it will happen overnight. Guiding an estate through probate takes time, and it cannot be rushed.
A personal representative starts the probate process by opening the estate at the Register of Wills in the county where the deceased lived at the time of his or her death. To do this, one needs something called a Petition for Grant of Letters, which is a form typically provided by the local Register of Wills, accompanied by an original Death Certificate, a check for filing fees, and an original will, if applicable. The personal representative will also need to provide identification and be sworn in as the executor or administrator of the estate.
Modern wills normally have a notarized acknowledgment by the deceased along with a notarized statement by two witnesses. This makes a will “self-proving” which means an executor can probate it as-is. If, however, the will lacks the necessary notarized statements, the Register of Wills will additionally require signed and notarized oaths from the will’s original witnesses.
Once the estate is open, the personal representative can go about the business of administering the estate, including advertising in local newspapers that the estate has been opened, identifying the estate’s assets and debts, preparing the estate’s inheritance tax return, and ultimately distributing property to the estate’s rightful heirs or beneficiaries.
(This article is intended as a discussion of legal topics that are often confusing to many laypeople; it is not, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. Attorney Jesse White is licensed to practice solely in Pennsylvania and any information discussed relates solely to Pennsylvania law. The hiring of a lawyer is an important decision that should only be made after careful consideration. If you feel you need to hire an attorney, contact The Law Office of Jesse White at 724-743-4444 or visit www.jessewhitelaw.com.)