There is a common misconception that the government takes assets if someone dies without a will. Fortunately, this is not the case as long as at least one living relative is left to inherit under Pennsylvania law. But what happens if there are no living relatives?
When an individual dies without a will, they die "intestate." As a result, your assets become subject to intestate succession. An estate attorney can provide more insight. But, equally important, they can work with you to ensure your assets don't become subject to intestate succession.
Intestate Succession Law in Pennsylvania
A will includes written instructions on how to distribute certain assets. However, Pennsylvania Intestate Succession Law (20 P.S. § 2101 et seq.) provides an order of inheritance to distribute estate probate assets held solely in the decedent's (deceased) name.
PA Intestate Succession laws, however, do not govern the passing of non-probate assets such as:
- jointly owned property with survivorship rights
- certain assets with the named beneficiary (such as Transfer/Payable Upon Death accounts)
- life insurance accounts
- retirement accounts
These non-probate assets become the property of the surviving owner, or beneficiary, by law. In addition, they’re accessible without the appointment of a personal representative. So, they do not constitute a part of an estate.
The Succession of Assets Through Intestate
If any probate assets remain after payment of all estate obligations, PA distributes them through intestate succession. As a result, the net balance of an estate passes to the surviving heirs based on their relationship to the decedent and in succession as follows:
- The surviving spouse receives the entire estate if the decedent has no descendants or parents.
- The spouse receives the first $30,000 of the estate plus half the remaining estate if a decedent has no descendants but is survived by their spouse and at least one parent. The surviving parent or parents receive the other half of the remaining estate.
- With children, the decedent's spouse receives the first $30,000 plus one-half of the remaining estate. The decedent's children, children's children, etc., who are descendants of the surviving spouse, receive the other half of the remaining estate.
- If a spouse survives a descendant and none or at least one of the surviving descendants is not a descendant of the surviving spouse, the spouse will receive one-half of the estate, and the other half estate will pass to the surviving descendants.
- If there is no surviving spouse, the descendants of the descendant receive the entire estate.
- If a spouse or descendants do not survive a decedent, the decedent's parents receive the assets. After that, the assets sequentially fall to Siblings, then Grandparents, then Uncles/Aunts, then Respective children and grandchildren.
- As mentioned above, the estate only passes to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania without surviving relatives.
Protecting Your Assets
As stated above, while the government does not typically claim the assets of individuals who die without a will in Pennsylvania, there are still steps you can take to protect your assets. But, more importantly, you can ensure they get distributed according to your wishes.
First and foremost, you should create a will. A will is a legal document that outlines how you want to distribute your assets after you die. By creating a will, you can ensure that your assets get distributed according to your wishes rather than relying on intestate succession laws.
In addition to creating a will, you should consider other estate planning tools, such as trusts. A trust is a legal arrangement in which a trustee manages your assets on behalf of your beneficiaries. Trusts help to avoid probate, reduce taxes, and protect your assets from creditors.
Talk to an Estate Attorney or Will Lawyer in Our Law Offices
Please note that there are plenty of benefits to having a will other than just naming the beneficiaries of your estate. If you want to discuss your needs, don't hesitate to contact our law offices and their estate planning attorneys at (610) 275-0700. You can also fill out our contact form.
High Swartz LLP and our lawyers have proudly assisted clients with preparing estate plans and administrating the decedent's estates for over 100 years.