Probate is the process through which a person's property is transferred to new owners after the person dies. A person can take steps that impact probate, such as creating a will or trust, but the probate process itself only begins after a person dies leaving behind property. Talk to a Pennsylvania probate attorney if you need legal advice about probate in the state.
Creating a Will
Pennsylvania residents can create a last will and testament. This is a specific kind of legal document that is only used after you die, and in which you express your wishes about who is to receive your property. While not all probate cases involve a will, they form a key part of any estate planning process. A long as you are at least 18 years of age and of sound mind, you can create a will in Pennsylvania.
Dying Without a Will
You do not have to have a will for the probate process to take effect. As long as you die leaving behind property, your property must get distributed according to the probate laws of Pennsylvania. A person who does not leave behind a will is said to have died intestate. An intestate estate -- the property left behind -- gets distributed according to Pennsylvania's intestacy laws. These laws essentially state how your property gets distributed regardless of what your preferences may have been.
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Opening the Estate
Once a person in Pennsylvania dies, the estate has to be brought to the attention of a probate court, called the Orphan's Court in Pennsylvania. The court will appoint a personal representative, a person responsible for handling the estate process. The personal representative, also known as an executor or an administrator, has the responsibility to ensure the estate is handled properly and can be an individual or an organization, such as a bank's trust and estate department.
Once a personal representative is appointed to a probate case, she must begin the estate settling process through which all estate property is accounted for and redistributed. This often involves notifying creditors and beneficiaries that the probate estate has been opened, inventorying estate property, paying creditors and collecting estate debts. The personal representative is the only person authorized by the court to use estate property to pay for debts or to give that property to new owners.