Register of Wills & Clerk of Orphans' Court Division

What Should I Know About Handling An Estate?

What is estate administration?

When an individual dies, it is often necessary to follow formal procedures in settling the estate. This process is called ESTATE ADMINISTRATION. Both state and federal law establish certain requirements which must be followed.

The word ESTATE is used to describe the property and obligations of a person who has died. ADMINISTRATION includes procedures and requirements relating to collecting of assets, satisfying of obligations such as debts, expenses and taxes, and distributing property to the heirs and beneficiaries.

When is formal estate administration required?

In almost every case when a person dies having personal property or real estate, an estate should be administered.

Who administers an estate?

A PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE is the individual charged with administration of an estate. The personal representative works with an attorney in complying with necessary legal requirements.

If an individual has executed a will during his or her lifetime, the will should designate the personal representative, who is called an EXECUTOR. If the deceased person did not have a will, an ADMINISTRATOR will be appointed to handle the estate. The administrator will generally be the surviving husband or wife or the children of the deceased. The individuals entitled to administer an estate are established by law.

What does a personal representative do?

An executor or administrator must obtain the necessary legal documents to enable him to act for the estate. These documents, called either LETTERS TESTAMENTARY (for an executor) or LETTERS OF ADMINISTRATION (for an administrator), are obtained through the Register of Wills in the county in which the DECEDENT (the deceased person) lived at the time of death.

The duties of the personal representative include:

  • Finding the will and having it PROBATED. Probate is the legal procedure used to establish the validity of a will.
  • Locating and protecting the assets of the estate.
  • Finding and notifying the heirs.
  • Paying the debts, expenses, and taxes of the estate from the assets of the estate.
  • Complying with the requirements of state and federal law.
  • Distributing property to the heirs after all proper procedures have been followed.

Is an attorney necessary in estate administration?

As a practical matter, it is very difficult for a non-lawyer to correctly follow the required procedures in administering an estate without the assistance of an attorney. The personal representative selects the attorney for the estate. If there is a will, it is a courtesy to the deceased to use the attorney who prepared the will. Otherwise, the executor or administrator may use an attorney who is known or who has been recommended. An attorney can also be located through a lawyer referral service, which will be listed in the yellow pages under the heading of "Attorneys," "Lawyers," "Attorney Referral Service," or "Lawyer Referral Service."

What role does the will have in estate administration?

If the deceased has left a will, it is filed for probate in the office of the Register of Wills in the county in which the decedent resided. If the will is valid, its directions are followed in distributing the estate to the beneficiaries.

What is done during administration?

At the beginning, all assets of the estate, including personal possessions and real estate, are inventoried and sometimes physically gathered. All of the beneficiaries (if there is a will) or heirs (if there is no will) are located. They are told that they were named in the will or have a legal right to receive an inheritance. Funeral expenses, debts, state and federal taxes are paid, and necessary tax returns are filed.

Sometimes administration may involve the short-term management of a business or corporation or sale of a business or stock in a corporation. There could also be sale of real estate which was owned by the deceased.

At the conclusion of the administration period, a final accounting of all assets is presented for approval to the county court. After approval, distribution of the balance of assets is accomplished.

The average estate should take about a year to conclude the administration. Large or complex estates may take considerably longer to administer.

What fees are paid during administration?

In addition to court costs, fees (usually based on a percentage of the gross value of the estate) are paid to the attorney and to the personal representative. These fees are paid out of the assets of the estate. Fee arrangements should be discussed during the first visit with the attorney who sill be involved in the administration of the estate.

What should be done first?

If someone close to you has died, it is suggested that nothing be done to disturb any of the property of the deceased unless it is necessary to protect it from being lost or destroyed. Shortly after the funeral, an attorney should be contacted to discuss the matter with those close to the deceased. In general, the surviving husband or wife should make the initial contact if he or she resided with the decedent. In other situations it is recommended that the closest relatives contact the attorney.

The lawyer will provide advice, determine whether administration will be required, and explain what procedures will be involved. If a will is found, the person named as executor should protect the will and give it to the attorney at the first consultation.

The Register of Wills and the Clerk of Orphans' Court Division is located on the First Floor of the Government Center Building and may be reached at 891-5395.

Office hours are 8:30 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., Monday thru Friday.

Those needing to probate an estate to arrive no later than 3:30PM.

*Special NoteThis information has been issued to inform and not to advise. It is based on Pennsylvania law. The statements are general, and individual facts in a given case may alter their application or involve other laws not referred to here.

The information above was prepared by the Pennsylvania's Bar Association 's  Young Lawyers Section.