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Probate is the legal process used to administer and settle an estate in Pennsylvania. Knowing how the probate process works is vital if you are the executor of a will or a relative of someone who has passed away without a will. If you are creating an estate plan, an estate planning attorney can help you understand the basics of probate and help you craft a plan that meets your needs and protects your loved ones’ interests.

The Purpose of Probate

The aim of probate is to collect an estate’s assets, settle any final debts, pay any tax due, and ensure that the remaining property is distributed to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs. When there is no will, the court appoints an administrator for the estate and their assets are distributed according to the laws of intestacy, which determine who will inherit the decedent’s assets.

Depending on the circumstances, probate can be a complex process. Although some estates can be wrapped-up in a few months, if there is no will or it is contested, settling an estate can take more than a year.  If you are unfamiliar with probate or anticipate problems or conflict surrounding a loved one’s estate, having an experienced attorney assist you with probate is vital to help the process run more smoothly and avoid errors.

Steps Involved in the Probate Process

Validating the Will

First, the executor of the will or personal representative of the estate is required to take the will, a certified copy of the death certificate, and a petition for Letters Testamentary to the Register of Wills in the county where the decedent resided. After it is determined whether the will is valid, the Letters Testamentary are issued and a fee is paid. The personal representative must also file a petition for probate, which asks the local probate court to open the case. If there is no will, Letters of Administration will be issued to the administrator by the probate court. The administrator is usually the next of kin, but it can be anyone depending on the particular circumstances. These documents give the executor or personal representative (i.e., the Administrator) authority to gather assets and act on behalf of the estate.

Estate Administration

All of the assets of the estate are identified, located and gathered by the personal representative or executor. They also must publish a legal notice in at least one local newspaper and one legal reporter or newspaper of general circulation, which informs the public, heirs, beneficiaries and creditors that probate is beginning. Certification of these notices must also be filed with the court. After inventorying estate assets, the administrator pays all debts and taxes. If any estate property needs to be sold, the personal representative is permitted to do so, but must file periodic status reports with the court. A discount of 5% is given if Pennsylvania inheritance taxes are paid within three months of the date of death. The final tax return is due nine months from the date of death.

Final Accounting and Distribution of Assets

When all matters have been resolved, a final accounting of the estate administration is prepared, and the remaining assets are distributed to heirs or beneficiaries. If there are any disputes by creditors or beneficiaries, or if there are any inconsistencies in the accounting, a formal accounting to the court may be required. A skilled probate attorney will oversee all aspects of probate, and can help you deal with any issues or conflicts that may arise.

Whether you are creating an estate plan or need assistance with probate and estate administration, seeking the counsel of an experienced Chester County probate attorney in Pennsylvania can give you peace of mind and refine the process.