Estate planning and administration are subjects that can surface painful realities. Few people want to consider how to handle issues that will arise when they or a loved one dies. Careful preparation, sound advice and a commitment to work through issues beforehand can save you significant stress, family turmoil and pain later on. Following are some general information that individuals and families – particularly those in Philadelphia – should know about estate planning and administration.
Estate planning is not only for the wealthy. Many people wrongly assume that only those who are very wealthy need estate planning. This is not true. Without a will and other necessary elements of estate planning the government often makes key decisions about your assets like homes, bank accounts, vehicles as well as who cares for your minor children and how you are treated when you are unable to decide for yourself.
After an individual dies there are formal procedures to settle, or administer, the estate. If the individual resided in Philadelphia, the estate will be subject to requirements from both federal and state law. Personal representatives are charged with administering an estate, and he or she will work with attorneys to make sure all legal requirements are met. If estate planning included a will, that document will identify the personal representative – or executor.
If the deceased has no will, an administrator will be appointed according to the guidelines set by state law. Typically, the estate will be administered by a spouse or a child over 18 years of age.
How is an estate administered? Before doing anything, personal representatives or administrators need documentation to allow them to act on behalf of the deceased. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania these documents are obtained through the Register of Wills in the county where the deceased person lived when they died.
Once they obtain legal right to administer the estate the representative must resolve several issues including:
o Locating the will and having it established as valid (also known as Probating)
o Notifying heirs
o Protecting assets (whether they be cash, property, etc)
o Paying any debts, taxes, etc owed by the estate
o Assuring that all state and federal laws are complied with
After all of these steps are followed, then a personal representative may distribute the assets to heirs.
Do you need a lawyer? As you can see, the process is complex. Not only are there federal and state laws to consider, but personal administrators often struggle with grief felt both personally and by other family members. In some unfortunate situations, heirs may dispute distribution of assets. For all these reasons, it is usually wise to consult an attorney for these matters.
Working with an attorney experienced in Philadelphia estate planning can help you draft a will, a power of attorney, trusts and other documents that will protect your assets and make your wishes clear to those who survive you. Likewise, using an attorney for estate administration can assure that all legal requirements are met and that issues are resolved fairly and effectively.