Probate (Estate Administration)

WHAT IS PROBATE?

Probate (estate administration) is the Court supervised process of winding up the legal and financial affairs of deceased persons, ending with distribution of assets to intended beneficiaries or heirs. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh area), this process is initiated through the Wills/Orphans’ Court Division of the Allegheny County Department of Court Records, located across the street from the offices of Weisel, Xides & Foerster, LLP.  In other Pennsylvania counties (our probate practice is statewide), probate is initiated through the local Register of Wills office.

The probate process in Pennsylvania requires that a personal representative of the decedent (called an executor if set forth in a will) be appointed to administer the estate. The personal representative must be sworn in at the Department of Court Records or Register of Wills.  After being sworn in, the personal representative receives certificates establishing their authority to take action to wind up the decedent’s affairs (e.g. closing and consolidating bank and brokerage accounts, selling real estate, compromising debts, etc.).

The personal representative is required to properly notify beneficiaries and advertise the estate (which provides notice to and imposes time limitations upon unknown creditors and claimants).  The personal representative collects the assets of the decedent and arranges for payment of the decedent’s debts.  An inventory of assets must be prepared and filed.  A Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Return listing taxable assets and allowable deductions must be prepared and filed in most estates. Finally, either a formal (resulting in a Court audit) or informal accounting of the estate is prepared and provided to the beneficiaries. The remaining assets are then distributed.

MAKING PROBATE EASY FOR YOU

The firm of Weisel, Xides & Foerster, LLP has decades of experience in the probate area.  This has enabled us to develop an efficient probate practice that makes it easy and comfortable for the client.  When a new client retains us to handle an estate, we immediately begin a petition for their appointment as a personal representative.

Typically, the petition is ready for filing as soon as the client visits the office.  The petition is then filed, and the personal representative is sworn in.  In Allegheny County cases, this occurs in the Department of Court Records, located across the street from our office.  A representative of the firm guides clients through the process.  We also make all advertising arrangements, and guide clients through the process of setting up an estate bank account for the consolidation of estate assets.

In most instances, our probate clients only visit the probate office once, and never need to enter a courtroom. Our firm handles all of the administration, and keeps the client informed every step of the way.  Provided all beneficiaries consent to release of the personal representative from liability, court audit of the estate can often be bypassed through the use of releases or  family settlement agreements.

AVOIDING PROBATE

Although the probate process in Pennsylvania is less supervised (by the Court) than in many states, and our law firm makes the process as comfortable as possible, some clients wish to avoid the probate process. One reason for this may be privacy concerns.  The probate process is conducted through public offices, and all filed documents are publicly available.

By careful estate planning prior to death, the attorneys of Weisel, Xides & Foerster can assist clients in avoiding probate after death through the use of trusts.  When property is placed in a trust, the trustee administers it in accordance with the wishes of the trustor (the person who establishes the trust). When the trustor dies, the successor trustee named in the trust document continues to administer and winds up the decedent’s affairs within the trust without court filings or supervision.  No public inventory or audit is required.  

SAVING TAXES

Most Pennsylvania estates are subject to the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax.  This tax applies to all assets owned by a Pennsylvania resident at death.  The rate is 4.5 percent for all direct descendants of the decedent (children and grandchildren), 12 per cent for all siblings (brothers and sisters), and 15 per cent for everyone else.  On estates of $5.5 million or more, the Federal Estate Tax may also apply.  In addition, Federal and State income taxes are due on income earned by an estate.

 When an estate is handled by Weisel, Xides & Foerster, LLP, an intensive analysis of all these taxes is made, including how to minimize them, when to pay them, and what funds should be used to pay them.  The personal representative is consulted on all these decisions. All of the appropriate tax returns are then prepared, and the necessary taxes are paid.  All allowable deductions are claimed on the returns and subtracted from taxable assets.

RECEIVING WHAT IS INTENDED BY THE DECEDENT

With decades of experience, the attorneys and personnel of Weisel, Xides & Foerster have acquired considerable expertise in handling both the estate probate process and administration of trusts following the death of family members. We take great care to insure all beneficiaries of the estate or trust receive exactly the amounts dictated by the will, trust, or other governing documents. Where no such documents exist, distribution is controlled by law, and the law is faithfully observed.

Occasionally one or more disappointed beneficiaries in an estate asks our firm if the beneficiaries are receiving the proper share of an estate or trust at the proper time.  Our firm has a long history of evaluating such questions and recommending appropriate action.  Where the facts and law clearly dictate legal action, our attorneys are prepared to take action.  This includes litigation in the Orphans’ Court or other appropriate body.

CALL US FOR A CONSULTATION

Our attorneys stand ready to assist personal representatives and beneficiaries in all phases of the probate process.  Call us at (412) 471-4128.