Estate Planning 101

How Long Does Probate Take in Pennsylvania?

In this article, we'll cover the topics that impact the length of probate in Pennsylvania, including complexity and value of the estate, guardianship, trusts, not having a Will, and claims from creditors or family members.
September 13, 2023

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Understanding the probate process can be critical when you're dealing with the death of a loved one and managing their estate. One common question we often encounter is, "How long does probate take in Pennsylvania?" It's challenging to provide a definitive answer because the timeframe can significantly vary based on numerous factors. However, on average, probate in Pennsylvania can take anywhere from several months to over a year. In this blog post, we will walk you through the various factors that can influence the length of the probate process in Pennsylvania and offer some guidance on what to expect.

The more complex and valuable the estate, the longer things are likely to take:

In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, the complexity and value of the estate can significantly impact the duration of the probate process. This is due to several factors, including the types and quantities of assets involved, the presence of creditors, tax obligations, and potential disputes among heirs.

If the deceased owned real estate in multiple jurisdictions, each property may need to undergo probate proceedings in its respective jurisdiction, which can add to the complexity and length of the process. Additionally, if the deceased owned a business, additional steps may be necessary to value the business, transfer ownership, or even sell it. These steps can be time-consuming and may require specialized legal and financial advice.

Pennsylvania also recognizes non-probate assets, which are assets that bypass the probate process and pass directly to the named beneficiaries. These include life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and properties held in joint tenancy. While these assets can help expedite the process, identifying, locating, and managing them can still take time.

If the deceased died “intestate” (that means they didn’t have a will), probate usually takes a lot longer:

When a person dies without a valid will, they are said to have died "intestate". In such cases, the estate is distributed according to Pennsylvania's intestacy laws, which can add significant time to the probate process.

Without a will to provide clear instructions, the court must appoint an administrator, which can be a time-consuming process if there are multiple interested parties or disagreements. Additionally, the administrator's responsibilities are often more complex in an intestate estate, adding to the duration of probate.

Moreover, without a will to dictate the distribution of the estate, potential disputes among heirs can arise, potentially leading to legal disputes and court intervention, which can dramatically extend the probate process.

If trusts are involved, the process is usually slower:

While trusts are often used as a tool to bypass the probate process, they can, paradoxically, slow down the process when they are part of an estate undergoing probate. This is largely due to the complexities involved in managing and distributing the assets held in the trust.

A trust is a legal arrangement where one person (the settlor) transfers assets to a trust, which is managed by another person (the trustee) for the benefit of a third person (the beneficiary). When the trustor passes away, the assets in the trust do not need to go through probate because they technically belong to the trust, not the deceased. However, this doesn't mean they're free from complications.

One of the main reasons why trusts can slow down the probate process is because they often require careful administration. The trustee must manage and distribute the trust's assets in accordance with the trustor's wishes, as outlined in the trust agreement. This can be a time-consuming and complex task, particularly if the trust contains a variety of assets or if the distribution instructions are intricate.

Furthermore, if the trust was not set up correctly or if there are questions about its validity, disputes can arise. These disputes can take a considerable amount of time to resolve, particularly if they end up in court. In extreme cases, the entire trust may even need to be probated, which can significantly extend the timeline.

Matters of guardianship will also slow down the probate process:

When a deceased individual leaves behind minor children, the probate process often becomes more complicated and lengthy. The reason for this is the need to determine and establish guardianship for the minors, a process that can significantly slow down probate proceedings.

In Pennsylvania, if a parent passes away and the other parent is already deceased or deemed unfit, a guardian needs to be appointed for any minor children. If the deceased left a will, they likely named a guardian for their children. However, even if a guardian is named in the will, the court still has the final say and must approve the choice of guardian, ensuring that it is in the best interest of the children. 

If no guardian has been named in a will, or if the deceased died intestate, the court must select a suitable guardian. This can lead to potential disputes if multiple family members or friends wish to be appointed as the guardian. Such disputes can prolong the probate process as the court takes time to review each potential guardian's suitability.

Furthermore, the guardian may need to establish a guardianship estate if the minor inherits assets. The guardian must manage these assets on behalf of the minor until they reach the age of majority, and this process requires court oversight. Setting up a guardianship estate involves additional court proceedings, paperwork, and potentially, legal fees, all of which can delay the overall probate process.

Claims on the estate — either from creditors or other family members — can make things take a lot longer:

When an individual passes away, their estate may be subject to various claims, primarily from creditors and potential heirs. Both types of claims can significantly extend the duration of the probate process.

In Pennsylvania, the law requires that the personal representative of the estate notify all known creditors of the decedent's death. The creditors then have a specific period, generally one year from the notification to file their claims against the estate for any outstanding debts. 

Dealing with creditors can be a lengthy process. The personal representative must validate each claim before paying it. If the estate lacks sufficient funds to cover all debts, the personal representative must follow the state's order of priority to determine which debts to pay. This can be a complex and time-consuming process, particularly if the estate is insolvent or if there are disputes over the validity of certain claims.

Claims from family members or other potential heirs can also delay the probate process. Sometimes, long-lost relatives or unexpected heirs may emerge after a person's death, claiming a right to a portion of the estate. Alternatively, family members may dispute the validity of the will, alleging that it was forged, created under undue influence, or that the decedent was not of sound mind when they made it.

Resolving these disputes can take considerable time and may even involve court proceedings. If a will contest goes to trial, it can significantly extend the probate process, sometimes by several years. Even if the dispute is resolved out of court, the negotiations can still add months to the probate timeline.

The probate process — and how long each stage takes:

The probate process in Pennsylvania, like many legal procedures, is methodical and consists of several stages. Understanding these steps and their expected durations can provide a clearer picture of the probate timeline. However, these are average estimates, and actual timelines can vary significantly based on the factors we've discussed.

  1. Opening the Estate: The probate process begins with filing a petition to open the estate with the Register of Wills in the county where the decedent lived. This usually takes place within a month or so after the individual's death. The Register then appoints a personal representative, also known as an executor or administrator, who is responsible for managing the probate process.
  2. Notification of Heirs and Creditors: The personal representative is required to notify all potential heirs and known creditors of the decedent's death. This can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the number of parties involved.
  3. Inventory and Appraisal: The personal representative must then inventory the decedent's assets and have them appraised to determine their value. Depending on the complexity and size of the estate, this process can take several months.
  4. Payment of Debts and Taxes: The personal representative uses the estate's funds to pay off any outstanding debts and taxes. In Pennsylvania, creditors have one year from the notification to file claims against the estate. Resolving all claims can take several more months, depending on the number and complexity of the claims.
  5. Distribution of the Remaining Assets: After all debts and taxes have been paid, the personal representative can distribute the remaining assets to the heirs according to the decedent's will or Pennsylvania's intestacy laws if there is no will. This process can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the number of heirs and the types of assets involved.
  6. Closing the Estate: Finally, the personal representative must prepare a final accounting, showing all payments and distributions made from the estate. Once the court approves this accounting, the estate can be officially closed. This final step can take a few weeks to a few months.

What to do if your executor isn’t moving probate along properly:

If you feel that the executor of the estate is not performing their duties properly or efficiently, it's important to know your rights and the steps you can take. In Pennsylvania, the executor, also known as the personal representative, has a fiduciary duty to manage the estate in the best interest of the beneficiaries, including completing the probate process in a timely manner. If you believe the executor is failing to meet these obligations, you can raise your concerns with the Register of Wills.

The first step is usually to open a dialogue with the executor. They may be able to address your concerns or provide information that explains the delays. However, if this doesn't resolve the issue, you can file a formal complaint with the Register of Wills.

In your complaint, you'll need to provide evidence of the executor's failings. This might include instances of negligence, mismanagement of estate assets, or failure to communicate important information about the probate process. The Register will review your complaint and, if it finds merit, may take several actions.

The Register could order the executor to provide a detailed report of their actions and the estate's status. Alternatively, the Register might supervise the executor more closely to ensure they fulfill their duties. In extreme cases, where the executor has acted in bad faith or seriously mismanaged the estate, the Register may remove them and appoint a new executor.

It's important to remember that removing an executor is a serious action and typically a last resort. The court will generally only consider this if there's clear evidence of misconduct or inability to perform the required duties.