Heir Rights (PA)

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As an heir, you likely have questions about the inheritance process in PA, and your rights.

Overall, if you are entitled to receive an inheritance, you have the right to expect to receive that inheritance ... eventually. While some states attempt to put deadlines on estate settlements, an average estate takes 16 months to settle, and some take years (see Inheritance Timing).

Rights Under PA Probate

Most estates are settled by an executor appointed by the court (often a family member), under a court-supervised process known as probate. The executor has significant discretionary power, but he or she has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate, to follow the law, and to distribute estate proceeds to the rightful heirs.

However, PA estates must satisfy obligations according to priority (for example, debts take precedence over distributions), so in some cases your inheritance will be less than expected, or even be completely consumed by other estate priorities (which must generally affect all potential heirs proportionately). See Estate Expenses, Fees, and Taxes for more information, and note that for your protection, estate executors must document all estate transactions and make these records available to the courts ... and in some states, must proactively deliver these records in a Final Accounting to the heirs as well.

Your rights as an heir include:

  • Notice: Many states have laws that require an estate executor to notify you of the death and the estate proceeding if you are mentioned in the will, if there is no will and you are entitled to inherit by intestate succession, or even if there is a will that doesn't mention you, but you would have been entitled to inherit by intestate succession (i.e., you are an "heir-at-law").
  • Estate Information: Many states require the executor to provide you a copy of the estate inventory, as well as a Final Accounting (what happened to the inventory, what estate expenses were incurred, etc.). If the estate is undergoing probate, and the state does not require that the executor directly supply you the information, you can simply make a public records request for the reports filed with the court.
  • PA Family Entitlements: If you are a surviving spouse or dependent child, you likely have additional rights that go beyond anything mentioned in the will or mandated by the laws of intestate succession. Surviving family members often have the right to remain living in the family home for a certain period of time, to automatically receive certain personal possessions, to receive a living allowance from the estate while it is being settled, and to receive certain minimum amounts (see PA Family Entitlement details for your state).
  • Reasonable Timeframe: Unless the asset is one that automatically transfers on death (such as an IRA with a named beneficiary), you can expect the process to take 12-18 months on average, and sometimes considerably longer (see Inheritance Timing). An executor has a duty to settle an estate in a reasonable timeframe, but most states are very lenient about such timeframes, and there are legitimate reasons that some estates take years to settle. On the other hand, some executor simply cannot handle the task, or unreasonably delay, and those can be grounds to ask the court to remove the executor and appoint someone else.
  • Court Objections: If the estate undergoes probate (and most do), you have the right to object to the probate court about anything you think is being done incorrectly or improperly. You can object to the appointment of a particular executor, you can object to the validity of a will, you can object to particular distributions (not just your own), you can object to sales of assets, you can object to how long things are taking ... in fact, you can object to almost anything. You just need to make sure you have valid grounds for doing so, and it's important to realize that settling an estate is a difficult task that takes time. See Court to find your particular court.
  • Lawsuits: If the probate judge does not respond to your objection as desired, or if there is no probate proceeding, then you can file a civil lawsuit against the estate. Such lawsuits can be expensive, and should be considered only as a last resort.

Additional considerations:

  • Expectations: Please keep in mind that although a will may be specific about an intended inheritance, other factors can sometimes intervene to modify or even entirely invalidate the inheritance. See PA Rules of Inheritance for details.
  • Inheritance Taxes: Some states have inheritance taxes for which the executor has the responsibility of paying, out of your share, before giving you your remaining inheritance. If your executor is using EstateExec, it will tell him or her if such taxes apply.
  • Executor Discretion: Unless the inheritance is a specific bequest, the executor may have some discretion in deciding how to give you your share of an estate. The executor may decide to liquidate assets and give you all cash (and cash equivalents), or the executor may mix and match assets to equal your share. You have to the right to ask for your share to be given in a certain form, but the executor does not have to respect your wishes. For this reason (and others), it is advisable to try to retain a good relationship with the executor (see Working with Executors).
  • Inheritance Receipts: When you receive an inheritance, the executor will likely ask you to sign a receipt, which can be required. However, the executor will often ask you, as a condition of receiving the proceeds, to waive any rights you may to decide to sue the estate or the executor in the future. Such waivers are best practice for an executor, but heirs are not required to waive their rights, so the decision is up to you. It may be best to sign anyway, to preserve the relationship and to receive your inheritance in a timely manner, but your ultimate recourse is to either convince the executor to drop the waiver, or object to the court.

PA Small Estate Rights

Most states have laws enabling small estates to be settled without full probate, sometimes without any court involvement at all. In such cases, there may be no formally appointed executor, and the heir can directly collect any inheritance to which he or she is entitled, by providing appropriate documentation to the current asset holders.

In Pennsylvania, full probate is not required for "small" estates, enabling an executor to save considerable effort and cost, and regardless of estate size, probate is not required if an estate contains only assets exempt from probate.

Small Estate Definition

In Pennsylvania, an estate qualifies as "small" if the value of the personal estate is <$50,000.

Real estate ownership does not impact this qualification, but if the decedent owned real estate that did not automatically transfer on death (for example, because of community property with right of survivorship), there will have to be a court probate for the those assets anyway...

In calculating estate value, you should value assets as of the date of death, and ignore any or debts. Do not include real estate or assets that would not normally go through probate, such as community property with right of survivorship, assets with named beneficiaries (e.g., 401Ks, life insurance policies), and other standard probate exclusions.

You should also exclude the following direct disbursements to funeral directors and immediate family members (i.e., the spouse, any child, the father or mother, or any sister or brother, with distribution entitlement in that order):

Employment Benefits

Up to $10K in wages, salary, or other employee benefits the decedent's employer pays directly to an immediate family member.

Deposit Funds

If all funeral bills have been paid, or other funds have been arranged to pay those bills, then a financial institution can release funds on deposit (including certificates of deposit) to an immediate family member, as long as the total amount held for the decedent by that institution does not exceed $10K.

Patient Care Account

Up to $10K of Patient Care Account funds used to pay burial expenses or distributed directly to an immediate family member (burial expenses must be paid before any distributions can be made).

Insurance and Annuities

Assets with named beneficiaries, such as life insurance policies, generally get disbursed directly to the named beneficiary, and are not subject to probate.

However, some insurance policies (and annuities in general) have the estate as the named beneficiary, or have no beneficiary named, and thus those proceeds normally become subject to probate (if there is a probate proceeding).

An insurance company can pay the proceeds of any such policy or annuity directly to an immediate family member, as long as the total amount owed by that company to the decedent's estate does not exceed $11K. In fact, if the estate has no other assets that might be subject to probate, you can use your local court's Small Estate Affidavit for Insurance to skip even the Small Estate Process, and just collect the insurance directly.

Unclaimed Property

The State Treasurer can release to an immediate family member up to $11K of unclaimed decedent funds in the Commonwealth's possession, provided that no personal representative has been appointed to the estate, or more than 5 years have passed since such an appointment.

See 20 PA Cons Stat § 3101 for more about direct disbursement exclusions.

Small Estate Process

If the estate qualifies as "small", any interested party can petition the court for permission to use the small estate settlement process.

  1. Submit a Small Estate Petition (see below) to the local Orphan's Court.
  2. Make any notifications the court requires and inform the court you have done so (see below).
  3. After a few weeks, the court will give you a decree of distribution, which you can use to obtain possession of estate assets from their current custodians.
  4. Settle the estate in the normal manner (pay all debts, distribute assets).

See 20 PA Cons Stat § 3102.

Small Estate Petition

Here is a sample Small Estate Forms package from Chester County; check with your local Orphan's Court for their preferred format (see below). Alternatively, you can use this generic PA Small Estate Petition.

Regardless of the particular form, a small estate petition must include:

  • A list of all estate assets (including value)
  • A list of all debts (including taxes owed)
  • The names and contact information for all heirs (including the relationship to the decedent)
  • The proposed distribution plan to creditors and heirs

Many courts require that you also include an Inheritance Tax Return (REV-1500).

Required Notifications

Normally the court will require you to mail a copy of your petition to the following parties at least 20 days before the deadline given to you by the court (parties residing outside the US should get at least 60 days):

  • Anyone who has notified you in writing that they have a claim on the estate
  • Anyone you know has a claim or interest in the estate that is not proposed for payment in full by your distribution plan
  • Any co-executor who has not signed the petition

See Orphans Court Rule 2.5.

Estate Settlement Considerations

Before paying any debts or making any distributions, be sure to account for any Family Entitlements in PA, which typically have priority over everything except expenses of the last illness, funeral charges, and any estate administrations expenses.

Even if the estate does not go through probate, you may still be entitled to Executor Compensation in PA, and this compensation also has priority over most estate debts.

Estate debts have priority over most distributions in turn, so before distributing assets you should resolve any estate debts. If the estate makes any distributions beyond amounts set aside for family entitlements, unpaid creditors have the right to sue the recipients for repayment using those excess distributions. Consequently, even if the settlement process does not require you to publish a Notice to Creditors, you may want to follow PA probate rules for finding estate debts, since doing so may limit the time creditors have to pursue repayment.

If estate solvency is uncertain, an executor should consider going through official probate for the increased creditor protection it offers. Alternately, such uncertainty can sometimes persuade creditors to forgive a portion of debts, since they will want to avoid legal expenses as well, and may prefer to get something rather than nothing.

See also Making Distributions.

No Small Estate Affidavit

Many people ask about using a small estate affidavit without any court involvement, but PA does not support such an affidavit. You must use one of the above methods (or full probate) for handling small estates in PA.


In Pennsylvania, the Orphans' Court division of the local Court of Common Pleas handles wills and estate probate. If you are using EstateExec and you enter the decedent's county of legal residence on the Decedent tab, you will see a direct link to the appropriate court here.

Estate Debts

Finally, note that as an heir, you are NOT responsible for paying the debts of the PA estate out of your own funds. You do NOT inherit responsibility for paying the debts of parents, for example. If the estate is insolvent (i.e., cannot pay all its bills), then creditors simply end up with less than owed, or even nothing ... as do you.

If an estate ends up being insolvent, and you somehow received a distribution anyway (perhaps through a small estate process), some states allow creditors to sue you to reclaim any amounts they are still owed. So you can't inherit a debt outright, but if you receive a distribution that the estate needed to pay its bills, you may be forced to pay out some or all of that distribution.

Additional Information

For more information about inheritances in general, see EstateExec Heir Guide.

In case you're interested, heir rights in other states can be found here:

EstateExec™ Leaves More $ for Heirs!

EstateExec is online software designed to help estate executors fulfill their duties, providing state-specific guidance, easy financial accounting, and even the option to work with a lawyer or other interested parties. As an heir, you can help ensure that your estate follows all the rules to a timely settlement by recommending EstateExec to your executor, (who often has never done the job before, and could use a little help). Anyone can get started using EstateExec for free, and pay just a one-time $199 licensing fee (per estate) if it proves useful.

EstateExec will likely save the estate thousands of dollars (in reduced legal and accounting expenses, plus relevant money-saving coupons), leaving more funds for distributions to heirs.

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