The Basics of Estate Administration

23 September 2014

After the death of a loved one, it is not only necessary to deal with the emotional issue of grieving for the loss of a family member or friend, but also with the financial issues associated with administration of the decedent’s estate.

Initially, family members or friends need to determine if the decedent left a will. In a will, a person makes decisions about how they want their assets distributed after death, how and when those assets are to be distributed, names a personal representative whom they want to oversee administration of their estate and names guardians for minor children, if any. Surprisingly, many people fail to prepare a will. Preparation of a will can make estate administration a smoother process for surviving family members and friends. Often times, failure to prepare a will causes issues for family members and friends which result in estate administration taking longer and costing more than if a will had been prepared. Lengthy estate administration often times results from the decedent’s failure to properly plan while living.

If there is a will, a determination needs to be made whether it is necessary to file the will with the Register of Wills Office in the county where the decedent lived at the time of their death. The Register of Wills, in addition to filing the will in their office, will also swear in and appoint the personal representative named in the will who will be responsible for proper administration of the estate. Many times, this will be the only time that the personal representative will need to go to the courthouse.

If there is no will, there are statutory laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that determine who has the right to serve as personal representative of the estate and who the beneficiaries of the estate will be and the share of the estate which each beneficiary will receive. If guardians for minors are not named in a will, it is necessary to go to court to have guardians appointed, which can be an emotionally draining and financially expensive experience.

Generally speaking, it is the duty of the personal representative to gather assets, pay bills of the decedent, including inheritance tax due to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Revenue, and make distribution of assets as directed in the will, and if no will, in accordance with the statutory laws of Pennsylvania. The tax due, bills to be paid and assets to be included in administration of the estate will depend in many instances on how the assets and bills were titled at the time of the decedent’s death. Further, there are assets such as life insurance and retirement accounts, which pass as directed in beneficiary designation forms completed by the decedent prior to death.

Serving as a personal representative of an estate is a serious responsibility involving a myriad of legal and practical issues, some but not all of the issues having been highlighted in this article. A personal representative of an estate can be held personally liable to beneficiaries and creditors if they fail to properly carry out their estate administration duties. The attorneys at Stone Lafaver & Shekletski have been providing legal advice and counseling to clients in the area of estate administration for over 50 years. Please contact us if you have questions in this area or with other legal matters.