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Small Estates

Property of a Pennsylvania decedent is usually subject to administration by the Orphans' Court of the county in which the decedent lived. However, there are numerous exceptions. Some property is outside the scope of administration, such as insurance, pensions, annuities and similar contractual arrangements. These typically have beneficiaries designed in them which were chosen by the decedent prior to his or her death. Property which is jointly owned usually passes to the survivor. In all of these instances merely filing or producing a death certificate may be all that is necessary to transfer title or the right to the proceeds, although the asset may still be subject to Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax.

On the other hand, assets which are in the decedent's name alone may need to be transferred by a court-appointed personal representative or with a court order. When the value of a decedent's personal property does not exceed $25,000.00 and there is no real estate involved, a simplified procedure is available to administer and transfer the estate assets without full probate administration. This procedure is the Petition for Settlement of a Small Estate. A person interested in the estate, such as a spouse, a beneficiary, a creditor, or a personal representative may file a petition with the Court. This usually is done with the assistance of an attorney. This petition will list all of the decedent's assets, the decedents and the estate's obligations, including inheritance taxes, and the decedent's beneficiaries or other persons entitled to the decedent's property. With appropriate notice to all interested parties, the court will authorize all necessary payments, transfers, and appropriate distributions. In this manner the entire administration of the estate is accomplished in one relatively simple procedure. Assets, such as bank accounts or stocks and bonds, which often require proof of authority to transfer, can be transferred with a court order from this procedure.

To take advantage of this simplified procedure of the Petition for Settlement of a Small Estate, the decedent's personal property cannot exceed $25,000.00 in value. If there is real estate owned by the decedent in his or her name at the time of death, full probate administration is required. If a decedent's personal assets exceed that amount, the personal representative of the estate will need to comply with requirements of full probate administration. This is a more time-consuming and expensive, but necessary, procedure in larger estates. In either case, however, you should consult your attorney for advice and assistance in filing all required papers and tax returns. 4/11

If you need to consult with an attorney or would like more information on small estates, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.