One of our Attorneys at Kozloff Stoudt recently published a featured article in the December 2015 edition of Closing Comment, the official newsletter of the Lancaster County Association of Realtors. In his article titled “Necessity of a Will for an Easier Transaction,” attorney Andrew S. George explains how a will can manage the disposition of a person’s property following death and provide for a distribution of estate property that accurately reflects the decedent’s wishes. Making extensive use of his experience in estate planning law, Mr. George’s article educates readers on the importance of drafting a will and the consequences associated with failing to do so.
The article surveys the default rules contained in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s estate administration laws which govern in the absence of a will, providing insight into how a decedent’s estate would be dispersed to survivors, in order to show why drafting a will can be beneficial for the family. To illustrate the reasons why a carefully drafted and reviewed will should be executed, his article shares an example from a recent estate planning case involving the administration of the estates of two spouses with inconsistent estate plans, which resulted in a final disposition that might not have reflected the wishes of either spouse.
The Pennsylvania Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code contains a chapter on “Intestate Succession”. The “Intestate Succession” Chapter is the Pennsylvania state legislature’s attempt at providing a general set of default rules reflective of its collective judgment as to what a theoretical will would have looked like if a person who actually died without a will would have adequately planned in advance. Unfortunately though, this approach fails to take into account the unique financial circumstances of each family member, the strength of the decedent’s relationship with each family member, and the friendship and support of extended family and non-family members.
The chapter presumes that only certain legally recognized family members, particularly spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, would be the natural objects of a person’s affection and therefore are the only survivors deserving of an inheritance. It also presumes that certain family members would automatically be preferred by the decedent over other family members, e.g., a decedent’s child is a preferred heir over a decedent’s parent. Interestingly however, the legislature departs from its own order of priority to provide a partial inheritance to certain family members, a departure from its general policy.
Although many individuals erroneously assume that the entire estate of a person without a will would pass to his or her surviving wife or husband, the inheritance of a surviving spouse will actually be determined by whether the decedent left behind other family members as well. In the event that no close family members survive the decedent, the Commonwealth receives the entirety of the inheritance. Such a distribution completely rejects the more probable desire that an estate be distributed to other family members, significant others, and friends.
The article details the different priorities and methods of distribution that exist under the law of Intestate Succession for the estates of individuals who pass without leaving a will. The assets remaining in the estate at the time of the person’s death are first used to pay for the deceased person’s estate administration expenses, funeral expenses, debt and taxes. In the event that additional assets remain following payment of these final expenses, the remaining assets are distributed as inheritance.
A per stirpes distribution is made whenever the decedent’s family members are not related to the same degree, while a per capita distribution is made whenever the decedent’s relatives are all related to an equal degree. Because the distribution of an intestate estate involves a complicated analysis of the relationship of the survivors to the decedent to determine the appropriate plan for distribution, it is highly recommended that the relatives of any intestate decedent consult with lawyers in Berks County, PA prior to administering the estate.
Andrew S. George also discusses a matter he recently handled involving the administration of the estates of a wife and husband, neither of whom had a will and who died untimely and simultaneously. Since advance planning had not been completed for their estates, the default rules of the “Intestate Succession” Chapter dictated the manner in which the estates were distributed. Since one of the heirs was the biological son of only one of the decedents, the distribution of the intestate estate resulted in unequal distributions of the estate assets to half-siblings. This case exemplifies how the outcome of the distribution in intestacy might not be what the husband and wife intended for their children, and poignantly demonstrates some of the potential pitfalls that might result from the failure to execute a properly drafted will.
Having a will drafted in advance provides grieving families with peace of mind during otherwise difficult times, giving survivors the comfort of knowing that they will be taken care of by their loved ones. Our firm can assist individuals with navigating the complex laws of estate planning and prepare a will that effectuates one’s desires as to how one would like for your estate to be distributed. To meet with one of our experienced attorneys, please contact us today. The full article can be read here.