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Do I Need a Probate Lawyer?

Dec. 2, 2015

Probate is the legal process that generally has to be gone through when someone passes away with assets titled in his or her name alone. Probate permits their assets to be transferred to their heirs, (next of kin) and beneficiaries. The term itself is used for two separate but related procedures. The first procedure is the formal legal process that recognizes that a will is valid and allows it to be filed in the appropriate government office, often called the register of wills, which can be a fairly routine matter. The person named as executor by the decedent in his or her will presents the will to the department of court records, register of wills in the county where the decedent lived and often where the decedent may have owned property. In many cases, the named executor is the decedent’s spouse or adult child, who then becomes the appointed legal representative of the estate. If the decedent has died without naming an executor or if, for some reason, the executor cannot serve, someone taking an oath and completing the prober petition can be granted the authority to act as administrator of the estate.

"Probate" also describes the next step, i.e. the administering of the estate that involves several steps: Collecting and collating the decedent’s assets, liquidating liabilities, and distributing assets to the heirs.

Collecting Assets: The deceased person’s property has to be identified and inventoried.
Appraising Property: Since, prior to the distribution of the assets, the probate court will need to know what the total cash value of the estate, some property may need to be appraised. Depending on the overall value of an estate, there could be federal and state laws that require certain assets to be appraised so that the property can be taxed according to its overall value. This is especially true for high-value estates that may have Federal estate taxes due.
Liquidating liabilities: This simply means that all just debts and necessary taxes have to be paid generally before any assets can be distributed. Note the percentage of inheritance tax imposed in Pennsylvania depends on the relationship of the heir to the decedent.
Distributing Property: Only the authorized executor or administrator has the power to transfer the various assets to the heirs or beneficiaries as the will dictates. If there is no will, state law will determine how the property is distributed by the Administrator.
Although Pennsylvania has simplified the probate process for small estates, it can still involve a lot of work. However, if you have clear cut instructions and all the forms you need, you may be able to handle all the details in a thorough and business-like manner.

On the other hand, especially in the case of a large or many-faceted estate, probate proceedings can be incredibly complicated and have a large number of variables. All of which means that a simple mistake, omission, or failure to meet a deadline can prolong the entire procedure. Worse, it often seems that everything has come to a grinding halt with no signs of getting moving again.

While you are not required to do so, in the event of any complications, you would be well-advised to consult a Probate Attorney, who is extremely experienced with all the intricacies of probate law. For example, numerous complications can arise from any ambiguity in the wording of the will and tax disputes can be incredibly convoluted. You will also probably need professional help if the estate includes a business that needs to be appraised or sold. Additionally, in the event the will is contested, I am trained to negotiate disputes that may help avoid long and extremely expensive court battles.

In many cases, it may be sufficient for me to review documents and give advice. However, should the process prove to be more than you can or are willing to take on, you can safely leave the entire probate process in my hands.