Clients often ask what happens if they die without a will. It is a common misconception that if you die in Pennsylvania without a will that everything will be left to the Commonwealth. Because of the statutory scheme that Pennsylvania has in place, it is a rare occurrence that anything will be left to the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has developed what is commonly referred to as the laws of Intestate Succession. A person who dies without a will in Pennsylvania is said to have died “intestate.” The laws of Intestate Succession govern the disposition of a person’s property if he or she dies without a will, or if all of his or her property is not disbursed pursuant to a will. The Pennsylvania laws of Intestate Succession are designed to protect both the surviving spouse and children (if any). In addition to providing for spouses and children, the Pennsylvania laws of Intestate Succession may also provide for a decedent’s (a person who dies) parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and their children and grandchildren under certain conditions.
The starting point is if the spouse of the decedent survives the decedent, the amount of property that the spouse ultimately receives is dependent upon which other relatives survive the decedent. So, who takes property and other assets pursuant to the Pennsylvania law of Intestate Succession? The law can be summarized as follows:
No Surviving Children
If the decedent is survived by his or her spouse and has no surviving children or parents at the time of death, the surviving spouse receives the decedent’s entire estate. If the decedent is survived by his or her spouse and one or both parents, the surviving spouse is entitled to the first $30,000.00 of the estate, plus one-half of the remaining estate.
If the decedent is survived by his or her spouse and has surviving children, all of whom are also the surviving spouse’s children, the surviving spouse receives the first $30,000.00 of the estate, plus one-half of the remaining estate. However, if the decedent is survived by his or her spouse, and at least one of the decedent’s surviving children is not also the surviving spouse’s child, the surviving spouse is limited to one-half of the estate. The reason that the surviving spouse receives less if one of the surviving children is not also a child of the surviving spouse is because the law presumes that a surviving spouse will care for his or her own children, but not necessarily those of the decedent.
No Surviving Spouse
What happens if the decedent is not survived by his or her spouse or the surviving spouse is not entitled to take everything in the estate? Pennsylvania’s Intestate Succession law provides for distribution of the estate in the following order: 1) children; 2) parents; 3) brothers, sisters and their children; 4) grandparents; 5) uncles, aunts and their children and grandchildren; and 6) the Commonwealth.
It is important to note that will substitutes such as joint tenancy property, life insurance payable to specific persons, bank accounts with specific beneficiaries and the like will pass in accordance with their terms and will not be a part of the decedent’s estate to be distributed pursuant to the laws of Intestate Succession.
It goes without saying, that the best way to plan for the future and adequately provide for your loved ones is to have a will and other estate documents prepared by a trusted professional.