by Paul E. Ellis, Esquire
For New Pittsburgh Courier

Major headaches and costs can be avoided by getting a simple will done.

Most of us are guilty of it:  waiting until the last minute to complete our Last Will, and often it does not get done at all.  It is an unpleasant task, but one that could spare you (or your loved ones) a great deal of aggravation and money.

When a person passes away in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the first document consulted is a will.

This document controls the wishes of the deceased above all others, and provides direction regarding the distribution of any assets.

If there is no will, Pennsylvania’s Intestate Laws take over, establishing a hierarchy of who is entitled to an estate:  usually the children in equal percentages, then the parents, then the grandparents, then aunts and uncles, and so on.

This system may or may not be consistent with the desires of the survivors.  Some people will avoid the system altogether by not opening up an estate.

In a typical example, one of the decedent’s children will move into the remaining house, raise a family, pay the bills, and provide general maintenance.

Years later, that person will pass and the cycle begins again. Inevitably, however, a dispute will arise regarding distribution of assets, and that is where the lack of a will can, and will, come back to haunt the parties. Why?  Because no matter how long you wait, the law requires a certain process to be followed.

This process includes opening an estate at the Register of Wills, swearing in an Executor, paying an Inheritance tax (fairly small, usually between 1-3 percent), to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, and updating records such as filing a new deed to a house with the Recorder of Deeds.

If the family cannot agree on who the Executor will be, the Court will decide after a hearing.

These procedures are not burdensome, but some people manage to avoid them because the state is not particularly aggressive about enforcing the opening of an estate.

Nonetheless, the longer you wait the harder it will become. Imagine having to conduct research going back a generation or two and trying to find long-gone family members and convincing them to sign documents they know nothing about, and that’s if they’re even alive.

Imagine trying to retroactively track down decades of addresses, and sort through who had children, who didn’t, names, birthdates, etc.

It’s overwhelming, usually requires professional intervention, and indeed often comes at great expense, just to solve the immediate issue at hand.  It’s simply not worth the procrastination.

The bottom line is, when a person passes away, you should open up an estate on their behalf, resolve issues with family and creditors, even if there are no assets.

This will document the estate, meet legal requirements, and spare your surviving family from a significant burden down the road.

Individual circumstances affect cases differently, therefore this column is not to be construed as legal advice necessarily pertaining to you directly.  To ensure adequate protection for yourself, you should consult your own Attorney.

(Contact Paul A. Ellis Jr., Esquire at

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