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Estate Administration FAQ

What is probate in Pennsylvania?

Probate or estate administration is the process that occurs after someone dies. Through probate, the court oversees the executor or, if a person died without a will, the personal representative, as they pay the decedent’s final bills, satisfy debts and funeral expenses, pay final tax bills and inheritance taxes and distribute all the remaining property to the decedent’s beneficiaries.

Do I need an attorney in order to administer an estate?

No. An attorney is not required to administer an estate. However, if you are not familiar with the Orphans’ Court or the probate process, it is advisable to consult with an attorney. There are many intricacies in administering an estate including but not limited to filing petitions and various other legal documents, advertising the estate, filing an inheritance tax return, paying debts in the correct order, withdrawing the decedent’s funds, selling the decedent’s real property and distributing property. The probate involves many deadlines to adhere to and reports to file.

Can I take a fee if I serve as executor?

In most cases you should be able to take a reasonable executor fee to compensate you for services provided if there are funds to do so. Some executors choose not to take a fee, especially in cases where the executor is an immediate family member, while some always do, like a family friend or a corporate executor. It is important to note that if an executor does take a fee, it can be used as a deduction on a Pennsylvania inheritance tax return, thereby reducing the taxable estate.

Do I have to have the original will to probate or can I just use a copy?

You should absolutely probate the original will. While it is possible to probate a copy of a will, doing so can be very difficult. You should make every effort to locate and submit the original will for probate. If the original will is truly lost and cannot be located, the executor must petition the court for permission to use a copy. Affidavits from the beneficiaries must be signed, and certain other formalities must be followed. The court scrutinizes these cases, so you must make a diligent search before attempting to probate a copy of a will.

What can I do if I think the decedent made a mistake in his/her will or was under the influence of somebody who had them change it?

If you have standing to challenge a will, meaning if you would likely have benefited from the will if it was not prepared with the mistake or undue influence, you can file for a will contest in your local Orphans’ Court. You must be prepared for litigation to ensue or perhaps the possibility of a settlement.

Do I need to file to probate the will in multiple states if the decedent had out-of-state property?

Regardless of whether the decedent died with a will or without a will (intestate), you may need to open an estate and begin probate in any state where the decedent owned property. If the property is titled in the decedent’s name alone, you definitely need to open an estate in the other state. This is called “multijurisdictional probate.” This may require assistance from local counsel in that state. If the out-of-state property is held in joint name or is titled in the name of a valid trust, multijurisdictional probate may not be required.

I was the agent under a power of attorney for my deceased father. Do I have to deal with probate since I was his power of attorney?

There is a common misconception regarding the difference between an executor and a power of attorney or agent under a power of attorney. An agent under a power of attorney only has power to act when a person (the decedent in this case) is still alive. At the decedent’s death, the power of attorney is void because the principal has died. An executor only has power to act after a person dies.

My uncle passed away last week. He was not married and has no children. His medical bills are rolling in and he lists me as executor in his will. Am I responsible for paying for the bills with his money?

As executor, if your uncle has money in bank accounts or any assets like real estate, you will need to pay those bills if there is money left in his estate to pay them, not from your personal funds. There are certain bills that take priority over medical bills, credit card bills and loans. For instance, funeral bills, estate attorney fees, accountant fees and probate fees all take precedence over other types of liabilities of the decedent. The best practice would be to notify the bill collectors to let them know your uncle passed away and the estate is being administered. Furthermore, inform them that they may be paid once you ascertain if the estate has the funds to do so.

My elderly mother passed away and left me with a pile of financial papers to go through and two houses to sell. I live in California, work a lot and do not have the time to deal with this. I am the executor; can I still serve as the executor and hire an attorney to handle administration of the estate?

Typically, a will has a provision where an executor has the power to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees for estate administration. If there is no will, Pennsylvania permits the executor to pay reasonable attorney fees for the same. However, if you cannot access your mother’s funds and need to hire an attorney, you may need to advance the funds yourself and wait to be reimbursed once your mother’s funds are freed up.

I am the executor of my brother’s will. He died leaving a lot of debts and not much money. I used what was left in my brother’s bank accounts to pay his bills, but the creditors still keep calling and sending letters demanding payment. Do I have to use my own money to pay my deceased brother’s bills?

As the executor, you are only responsible for paying the decedent’s bills with the decedent’s money. You will not be personally responsible for paying the decedent’s bills, unless you engaged in misconduct that caused the decedent’s money to be depleted (read: you stole it). If you are the executor of an estate where the bills and debts owed exceed the amount of money in the estate, you will not be responsible for paying the decedent’s debts out of your own pocket.