In Philadelphia, probate refers to a process supervised by the Philadelphia Register of Wills and the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court for transferring a deceased Philadelphian’s probate estate in accordance with the terms of the deceased’s will, or if there is no will, in accordance with the Pennsylvania Rules of Intestate Succession.
If you have a will, the process begins with the executor obtaining an original copy of your death certificate and taking the death certificate, the original will, a photo ID and a form of payment to the Philadelphia Register of Wills. If you have no will, the process can become much more complicated, as all eligible persons can bring your death certificate to the Register’s office and request that they be named the administrator (rather than the executor) of the estate. If the interested persons cannot agree, a hearing is necessary. If all the paperwork is in order for the executor, or if there is no will but all interested persons can upon an administrator to serve, then the Philadelphia Register can issue letters to the executor or administrator without a hearing. This paperwork authorizes that person to act on behalf of the estate.
Taking on the job of executor or administrator should not be taken lightly. By accepting the appointment you become a fiduciary, with a duty owed to the beneficiaries. The fiduciary can be found legally responsible for any damage that comes to the estate and can be forced to appear before an Orphans’ Court judge to account for every penny of the estate and to account and explain for every expense.
Once appointed, the executor should then gather the estate’s assets, determine what debts and creditors have valid claims and pay those claims, file various forms with the Register, file several tax returns (Federal 1040, PA40, Federal 1041, PA41 and the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Return), manage and potentially sell real estate, close down or sell the deceased’s business and, of course, address the beneficiaries’ concerns. At the end of the process, the fiduciary should obtain a release from all beneficiaries before distributing any money, as without a release the beneficiaries can use the inheritance to bring the executor or administrator before the Orphans’ Court for a number of reasons. If you as the executor have given all the estate assets to the beneficiaries, then you would be forced to use your own funds to retain an attorney to address whatever claims the beneficiary’s bring.
Pennsylvania recognizes that executors and administrators need help, and allow the fiduciary to use estate funds to retain a Philadelphia probate attorney to assist with the administration. This cost is paid by the estate as an administration cost, and is deductible against the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax.
If you have questions about probate, contact a Philadelphia probate attorney familiar with the process. The estate will pay your attorney, and a good probate attorney will make your life as the executor or administrator much easier.
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