Probate court has a relatively negative reputation among the general population. People think of probate court as both expensive and a waste of time. There is certainly justification for those sentiments, as many people anxious to receive an inheritance or gain legal control over property to protect it often find themselves delayed because of probate requirements.
Some estates in Pennsylvania and some assets owned by those who recently died must pass through probate, while others do not. When is probate court necessary for you to receive your intended inheritance?
When the estate is sizable
If someone dies and only has their sparse apartment furnishings and an old vehicle in their name, it may be possible for family members to avoid formal probate proceedings. By filing an affidavit with the courts, they can minimize probate court oversight and speed up the process of getting assets distributed to beneficiaries.
More valuable property will increase the need for oversight. If the estate is worth $50,000 or more, then it will require oversight by the probate courts and formal probate proceedings.
When the estate contains certain property
Pennsylvania state law requires probate court oversight if the estate contains any real estate. Even if the real property is a small parcel of unimproved land worth far less than $50,000, probate proceedings will still be required to transfer real property as part of the estate administration process. Additionally, if there are funeral or burial expenses that the estate itself must cover, the probate courts may need to oversee estate administration.
There are ways for testators to plan ahead to minimize probate requirements. They could transfer assets into a trust or otherwise reduce what will be part of their estate when they die. They can also make gifts while they are still alive so that less transfers after their death.
Generally, beneficiaries of an estate will need to wait until creditors have had a chance to make claims and the courts have approved asset distribution to receive their inheritance unless the property is in a trust or they have documents that make them the owner at the time of someone’s death.
Understanding when probate court is necessary will help you set realistic expectations about the timeline for the probate process and the timeline for accessing your inheritance when someone dies in Pennsylvania.