A frequently heard misconception about Pennsylvania succession rules is that the Commonwealth will get the entire estate if one should die without a will in place.
The reality is that this occurrence is extremely rare because the state has an extensive statutory scheme in place to prevent it at all costs.
Understanding Pennsylvania Intestate Succession Law
When a person dies and does not have a will in place, Commonwealth law dictates they have died “intestate,” and assets without title are typically subject to the succession hierarchy imposed by law.
Additionally, without a will, surviving family members face increased Inheritance Tax rates and other associated costs with the estate distribution.
The Hierarchy of Estate Succession for Spouses in Pennsylvania
When someone dies without a will in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the intestate’s assets will start with the surviving spouse. There are still several variables that will affect how much spouses receive according to law. Below is a general summary.
Without Surviving Children or Parents
When a decedent dies without any surviving children (biological or adopted) or parents still living, the spouse will get the entire estate.
With Surviving Parents but No Children
Decedents who pass away with no surviving children but still have one or both parents alive will have their assets divided between them and the surviving spouse. The first $30,000 of the estate and half of the remaining will go to the surviving husband or wife, leaving the balance to the parents.
With Surviving Children
Pennsylvania law is specific when children are part of the estate distribution, especially if any of the children are not of the surviving spouse. Typically, children of the marriage (including those adopted) do not receive direct distribution, only their surviving parent does, which is, the first $30,000, and another half of the remaining estate assets.
When surviving children belong to the decedent but not the spouse, it changes as follows:
- Spouses receive only half of the estate
- Child(ren) get the remaining balance divided among them if applicable
A common question is why the spouse would no longer receive the additional monetary compensation, as well. State law takes this approach under the assumption that while a surviving husband or wife would continue caring for their children from the marriage, there is no guarantee they would do so for the decedent’s other children.
What Happens if the Decedent Doesn’t Have a Surviving Spouse?
While much of Pennsylvania’s intestate law focuses on a surviving spouse’s presence, there are rules in place when there is not. Before the Commonwealth can act as a “taker of last resort,” where there is no one entitled to a decedent’s estate, it must pursue any living relative within the outlined hierarchy for distribution of these assets first:
- Children of the decedent (adopted or biological)
- Brothers and sisters
- Nieces and nephews
- Uncles and aunts
- Cousins and related grandchildren
- The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Again, this process only affects assets and property with no specified distribution in place when the decedent dies. Things like bank accounts or payable life insurance policies would pass through according to the provisions set out in the contracts they were created under.
When Does a Surviving Family Member Not Receive Their Portion of the Estate?
Pennsylvania law takes the distribution of a decedent’s estate seriously. There are situations where a surviving spouse, children, or other entitled family members will be stripped of their claim, even if a will directs otherwise.
Scenarios where this could happen include:
- Purposeful neglect of the spouse for at least the year prior until the day of death
- Unlawfully or intentionally kills the decedent
Avoid Succession Conflicts and Hire an Experienced Pennsylvania Estate Planning Attorney
The complicated nature of intestate succession should encourage families to be thorough in their estate planning efforts, no matter how a collection of property might seem. If you are having difficulty having a loved one’s estate distributed because there was no will, call our offices today for a consultation. In addition, if the Pennsylvania intestate laws do not sound like something you would want to happen to your estate, you are encouraged to reach out to an experienced Pennsylvania estate-planning attorney to design your estate plan just the way you want it to be.