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Intestate Succession in PA - The Importance of Preparing a Last Will & Testament

October 20, 2017

By Ruth Ann DiDonato, Esquire

Clients frequently ask what will happen to their assets when they die, and the usual response is what happens to an asset will depend on the type of asset involved. There are two types of assets: probate assets and non-probate assets. Each is treated differently under Pennsylvania law.

Probate assets are those assets titled in a decedent’s sole name, for example, a bank account. Non-probate assets are assets that are jointly titled with another individual, assets held by a trust, assets that have a designated beneficiary, or assets that have been made “payable on death” to another individual at the decedent’s death.  Examples of non-probate assets are a house owned jointly by spouses, or a life insurance policy with a named beneficiary.

When a person dies, their non-probate assets pass according to specific rules governing those individual assets. For example, an insurance policy will pass to the person designated as the beneficiary in the insurance policy itself.

When a person dies, if that person has a last will and testament, their probate assets will pass in accordance with the terms of their will. If the deceased person did not have a will, then Pennsylvania’s intestate succession statute dictates how their probate assets are divided (Pa. Code Chapter 21 of Title 20, Decedent’s, Estate & Fiduciaries). The intestate succession statute dictates how assets are to be distributed among a decedent’s spouse, children, parents, siblings, and other blood relatives. Friends, significant others, and charities are not included in the distribution. And if a decedent has no relatives beyond the children of their first cousins, then the decedent’s probate assets pass to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

While Pennsylvania’s intestacy statute is intended to mirror the asset distribution in an average decedent’s last will and testament, it is not a good substitute for a will.  For instance, under the statute, a decedent’s house could pass to a child that the decedent hasn’t spoken to in ten years instead of a child that they see every day, or a piece of jewelry could pass to a sibling that the decedent doesn’t like. Essentially, the statue is the Pennsylvania government’s best guess at how a person would like their probate assets distributed if they have no will.

To take the guesswork (and the government) out of your estate, the best course of action is to have a will. It’s important to have a last will and testament prepared by an experienced attorney so that your wishes will be followed and your probate assets will be passed on the way you prefer. For more information on preparing a last will and testament, please contact any of the Wills, Trusts & Estates attorneys at Willig, Williams & Davidson at (215) 656-3600.

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