State laws vary with regard to probate. Probate is a judicial process where a special court oversees the administration of a decedent’s estate. Typically, when a person, or testator, creates a will, the testator appoints a personal representative, or executor, in the will to administer the testator’s estate upon death. Once the testator dies, the executor must file the will for probate. In Pennsylvania, the executor may probate the will at any time after the testator’s death.
A will is a written document signed by the owner of certain assets, providing instructions for how to distribute those assets upon the owner’s death. The testator should appoint an executor in the will to file the will for probate. In addition, the testator may appoint guardians for minors who may receive property pursuant to the will’s instructions. In Pennsylvania, the law does not require the signature of witnesses for the will to be valid. However, two witnesses must watch the testator sign the will and appear at probate before the Register of Wills Office and attest and identify the signature of the testator.
Once the testator dies, the executor must file for probate in the county register of wills in which the testator last resided. The will goes to probate so that the executor can prove the will’s validity. In Pennsylvania, the filing for probate is called filing a “petition for letters testamentary.” The court oversees how the executor administers the estate, makes sure all Pennsylvania laws are followed and adjudicates any disputes that arise from the executor’s administration of the estate.
The executor owes what the law refers to as a “fiduciary duty” to the estate. In other words, the executor must always make decisions based on the best interest of the estate. That means the executor cannot act in the best interest of himself, the estate’s beneficiaries or other persons. The executor bears responsibility to pay all the estate’s debts with assets from the estate after inventorying the assets of the estate. After the estate is inventoried and debts are paid consistent with Pennsylvania law, the executor must transfer the estate’s assets to the will’s beneficiaries.
The executor must file Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Return REV-1500 with the county register of wills. The form is for the estate tax and the executor must file it within 9 months of the testator’s death.
An attorney and founder of ScrofanoLaw, a general practice law firm in Washington, D.C., Joseph Scrofano has been writing on legal issues since 2008. He holds a Juris Doctor from the Washington College of Law, a Bachelor of Arts with special honors from the University of Texas and a master's degree in international affairs from American University's School of International Service.