Under Pennsylvania law, anyone with an estate valued at $50,000 or more must go through the probate process with very few exceptions. Some of the property that is not required to go through probate includes:
- Unpaid wages – an employer may pay up to $5,000 in owed wages to a spouse or close family member upon the death of an employee. Generally it is assumed the family will need the money to pay for funeral and other expenses.
- POD/Beneficiaries – any property that is owned under the designation POD (Pay on Death) or has a beneficiary such as a retirement account, life insurance policy or other financial asset that has a confirmed beneficiary need not go through probate.
- Jointly held property – any property that is held in joint tenants with rights of survivorship (JTWROS) may be transferred to the living owner upon the death of the co-owner. This includes bank accounts and real estate holdings.
- Bank accounts – bank accounts with less than $10,000 may be transferred to a spouse or close family member who provides a certified death certificate and proof that funeral expenses have been paid.
While these exemptions may provide some relief for family members and spouses, any other property that is held by the decedent must go through the probate system which can be very complicated, especially if there is no will.
Do I really need a will?
In the event that you die without a will, the probate court will appoint an administrator of your estate and they will distribute assets to your surviving family members. Typically the administrator will be a family member or spouse. However, while the administrator will distribute your assets in accordance with the law, primarily to your spouse, surviving children and other family members, this means that you have no say in the distribution of your assets.
Since most people in Pennsylvania have assets that easily exceed the small estate value of $50,000 chances are that your surviving heirs will have to go through the probate process. You can help ensure that your assets are distributed in accordance with your wishes by having a will in place by working with an estate planning attorney who understands Pennsylvania estate laws. In many cases, simply designating a beneficiary or placing property in joint names can help your family members avoid the time and expense of probating your estate and help ensure that your assets are distributed in accordance with your wishes.