Estate Planning +

An estate is what is left behind when someone dies. There are laws that govern how those assets are to be distributed, either according to the stated wishes of the person who died, or according to established rules in the Pennsylvania code.

An executor (if there is a will) or administrator (if there is no will or the executor named by the will is no longer available) is the person who sees to the proper distribution of the estate. An executor or administrator is appointed to:

  • Pay the decedent's debts
  • Clean out the house and deal with material belongings
  • Gather the assets
  • Sell or transfer real estate
  • See that the provisions of the will are carried out or, if there is no will, that the assets are distributed to next of kin according to the law.

Being an executor is like running a business. You must handle income taxes, inheritance taxes, bills, assets, telephone calls from family members wondering how long before they receive their bequests, real estate transactions, notifications to beneficiaries according to the law, accountings for beneficiaries, and much more.

The role of executor consumes time. Not only is there the time it takes to do all that needs to be done, there is the additional time devoted to learning the ropes.

An experienced lawyer can facilitate the management and distribution of the estate in a cost-effective and speedy manner.


I'm the executor of my relative's estate. What is my first step?
Take the will to the register of wills in the county in which the decedent lived to have it probated. Probate means the will has been filed and the executor has been sworn in and officially appointed by the state. You will receive a "short certificate", which you will need to present to the bank, brokerage firms, title company, auto tag place, and others for transferring control of property and assets.

My relative died without a will. What do we do?
You will need to determine who is/are next of kin under state law. That person or people will serve as administrator of the estate. Next of kin is generally spouse first, then children, then parents, then siblings, and so on.

My relative or friend is the executor of my relative's estate and I'm not sure he/she is up to the job. What should I do?
Contact a lawyer and discuss your concerns. Discharging the duties of executor can seem opaque from the outside and things can take longer than you expect, particularly if real estate must be sold in order to liquidate assets. Sometimes, of course, executors are in over their heads. A qualified, experienced lawyer can help you determine which is the case and take proper action to remedy the situation.

An estate to which I am a beneficiary seems to be taking a long, long time to wrap up. What is the normal time frame for such things?
This varies greatly depending on the complexity of the estate. A simple estate should take six months to a year to be substantially completed. Factors that complicate estates include real estate that is difficult to sell, ownership of a business, law suits, conflicting wills, challenges to the will, and many others.

What is the inheritance tax in PA?
At this writing, no tax on assets passing to a spouse or to charity. 4.5% on assets passing lineally, that is passing to children, grandchildren, and parents. 12% on assets passing to siblings. 15% on assets passing to nieces, nephews, friends, or other individuals.

When does an estate owe federal estate tax?
If an individual owns more than $5,000,000 in assets and life insurance, that estate will owe a percentage to the federal government. If you have an estate this large, you should consult an estate planning attorney so as to limit your federal estate liability.

The executor of my relative's estate is charging money to do the work. Is that fair?
Yes. An executor is entitled to a reasonable fee for the work he or she is doing. If you believe the fees are unreasonable, you should consult an attorney to review them. Executors can charge by the hour or a percentage of the estate.

I am a beneficiary and I feel shut out by the executor. What are my rights?
You are entitled to initial notice that you are a beneficiary of the estate. After that, if the executor is not communicating with you and not responding to your inquiries, you can file a petition to request an accounting from the executor in Orphan's Court. An estate planning attorney can help you.

I am a beneficiary of a life insurance policy. Is there inheritance tax on that in Pennsylvania?
No. Life insurance proceeds are not taxable under PA state law.

I am an executor and the other beneficiaries keep doubting me and hassling me. What can I do?
Communication and documentation are your stalwart protections against misunderstanding and lack of faith. Keep good records and keep the beneficiaries in the loop. While you may not be able to keep everyone happy at all times, you can protect yourself by maintaining transparency and integrity. If you feel matters have become grave, you can consult a qualified, experienced estate planning lawyer for advice in dealing with the beneficiaries.

I said I'd be an executor but I'm in over my head. What should I do?
Consult a qualified, experienced estate planning lawyer, who can help you with all aspects of the administration of the estate. What you have only begun to learn, your estate lawyer will have seen and successfully completed many, many times. No estate, no matter how tangled or complicated, is unsolvable.

I am a co-executor and the other executor is being a secretive control freak. What should I do?
It depends on the estate and what the specific issues are. If the co-executor is being uncooperative, you may need to consult an estate planning attorney to encourage communication and transparency. As a last resort, you may need to go to court and ask the judge to intervene.