INHERITANCE LAW: Small Estates Intestacy Estate Tax Probate Court

Pennsylvania Inheritance Law

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104

What Pennsylvania Residents Need to Know About Inheritance Law

Pennsylvania Probate Toolkit: Learn how probate works in Pennsylvania, and how simple probate-avoiding shortcuts can save you time and money.

How to Avoid Probate in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Probate Law & Procedure

Death & Taxes

Wills & Intestacy

Paying Debts

  • When someone dies, their bills keep coming due. Learn which ones to pay and which ones you can legally walk away from.
  • Secured Debts:
    • Mortgage Payments:  Mortgage payments are still due on a house after someone dies. Here's how to pay the bills.
    • Car or Boat Payments: If there are other secured loans, those still must be paid, or the property must be surrendered.
  • Unsecured Debts: Unsecured debts like credit card debt die with the debtor. Their personal liability is not passed on to their heirs.



Welcome to the fastest and easiest way to find out about Inheritance Law in Pennsylvania.

Did You Know...?

Three things to keep in mind:

1. Many estates can avoid probate altogether, either because they're small enough to fall under a state's small estates limit, because the assets were held in a living trust, or because the assets will go to named beneficiaries because they are held as pay-on-death or  joint tenancy accounts, or in retirement or life insurance.

2. You have to pay creditors and taxes before you can inherit assets.

  • You always have to pay taxes before any other creditors can get paid. 
  • Debts that are secured by property, like mortages, are called secured debts, because if someone doesn't pay the loan, the lender can take the property. If you inherit a house, you also inherit the mortgage.
  • Unsecured debts, like credit cards, don't work that way -- as a beneficiary you are not responsible for that debt,
  • But the estate needs to pay all known creditors before distributing property to beneficiaries and heirs. Otherwise, a creditor can come calling to get paid back from estate assets, even after they've been distributed.

3. Most estates do not need to file a Federal estate tax return. Unless an estate is worth more than $12,920,000, it will not need to file a Federal estate tax return.

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Pennsylvania Levies an Inheritance Tax

In Pennsylvania, there's an inheritance tax.  

Its rate depends upon the person who inherits it.

No Tax: 

First, the surviving spouse is entirely exempt, which means the surviving spouse will not pay any state inheritance tax.

Also exempt are the surviving parents if death occurs before age 21 or as a result of injury or illness received while on active duty as a military member.

4.5% Tax:

Next, close relatives (such as parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and other lineal descendants) are taxed on inheritances at a rate of 4.5%. 

12% Tax:

Siblings are taxed at 12%,

15% Tax:

Everyone else is taxed at 15%.

Information about the inheritance tax return form, instructions, and tax rates can be found on Pennsylvania's Department of Revenue's website.

This state-specific inheritance tax is in addition to the federal estate tax, which also falls on the estate of the person who died, not on the people who inherit that property. There is an exemption of $10 million, which is indexed to inflation and is currently $12,920,000, and only people who die with an estate larger than that exemption will have to pay federal estate tax, which means that it is estimated that only the wealthiest .14% of Americans will be subject to the estate tax at all, or only 2 out of every 1,000 people who die.

If someone dies in Pennsylvania with less than the exemption amount (currently $12,920,000), their estate doesn't owe any federal estate tax. The heirs and beneficiaries inherit the property free of federal tax and don't pay income tax, either, because inherited property is not ordinary income. The only exception is inherited retirement accounts, which are subject to income tax as the assets are withdrawn.

How Probate Works in Pennsylvannia

Probate is the official way that an estate gets settled under the supervision of the court. A person, usually a surviving spouse or an adult child, is appointed by the court if there is no Will, or nominated by the deceased person's Will. Once appointed, this person, called an executor or Personal Representative, has the legal authority to gather and value the assets owned by the estate, to pay bills and taxes, and, ultimately, to distribute the assets to the heirs or beneficiaries.

The purpose of probate is to prevent fraud after someone's death. Imagine everyone stealing the castle after the Lord dies. It's a way to freeze the estate until a judge determines that the Will is valid, that all the relevant people have been notified, that all the property in the estate has been identified and appraised,  that the creditors have been paid and that all the taxes have been paid. Once all of that's been done, the court issues an Order distributing the property and the estate is closed.


How to Probate a Small Estate in Pennsylvania

Small Estate Limits for Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvannia, there's no Affidavit procedure. You can use a summary probate procedure if an estate's property is $50,000 or less, not counting real estate, certain payments the family is entitled to and funeral costs.

20 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. 3102.

What's Included in valuing the estate?

Not everything a person owns is part of their "Estate" for probate purposes.

If you're wrapping up the estate of a Pennsylvania resident who died with an estate that's worth less than a certain dollar amount, you won't have to go through a formal probate court proceeding. 

It doesn't matter whether or not the deceased person left a will; what matters is the value of the assets left behind. If the estate's value is under the "small estates" limit in Pennsylvania, you can take advantage of a simplified probate procedure, often called a "summary probate." Instead of having a court hearing in front of a judge, you may need only to file a simple form or two and wait for a certain amount of time before distributing the assets.

In some states, it can be even easier: Inheritors can use a simple affidavit to claim assets. (An affidavit is a statement you sign in front of a notary, swearing something is true.) If you live in one of those states, you just have to wait a required period of time, then sign a simple, sworn statement that no probate proceeding is happening in your state and that you are the person entitled to inherit a particular asset--a bank account, for example. 

Adding it up, what's in, what's not

When you are trying to determine whether or not an estate's value is below the Pennsylvania small estates limit, the first thing to do is make a list of the assets. A simple spreadsheet or list will do.

Not everything a person owns counts, though.

Include only the things that pass to heirs and beneficiaries by will or, if there's no will, by Pennsylvania intestacy laws, which determine who inherits if there is no will.


Who Manages Property Inherited by Children in Pennsylvania?

Until a child is eighteen years old, they can't inherit property in their own name.  Instead, an adult needs to manage that property until the child can manage it for themselves.

A child can inherit property in several ways:

  • If a person dies and leaves behind a Will or a trust, and names that child as the beneficiary, then it will be the Trustee's job to manage that child's property according to the terms of the document.
  • If a person dies and makes a gift to a child under that person's state's Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, the child's money will be placed in a custodial account for that child's benefit to a certain age.
  • Finally, if a person dies and leaves money to a child directly, or names that child as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy or a retirement account, a court will need to appoint a property guardian to manage that child's money to age eighteen.

Child as Trust Beneficiary

If a child is the beneficiary of a trust, the Trustee will need to get a tax identification number for that child's trust, open up a bank or brokerage account in the name of the trust (using that new tax id number), and then distribute the assets to the child as directed by the trust.  

For example, if a child is the beneficiary of a trust to age twenty-five, and the trust directs the Trustee to distribute the money for that child's, "health, education, maintenance, and support," (which would be a typical distribution standard), it will be the Trustee's job to distribute money to that child until the child turns 25. After that, the trust would terminate, and the child would be in charge of managing and distributing the money themselves.


Who Inherits When Your Spouse or Parent Dies Without a Will in Pennsylvania?

If your spouse or parent dies without a Will, Pennsylvania law determines who will inherit his or her property. These laws, called intestacy laws, are essentially state-written Willls that determine who gets the decedent's property.  The word "intestate" describes a person who dies without a will.  A person who dies with a Will is said to die "testate."

Generally, in intestate succession, property goes to close family members, starting with a surviving spouse and children, and then gradually widening out to parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents and their legal descendants, and more distant relatives after that. If absolutely no relatives can be found, then a decedent's property goes to the state.


How to Get a Tax ID Number for a Trust or Estate in Pennsylvania

If you are serving as the executor or trustee of a deceased person's estate or trust, you are going to have to get a taxpayer identification number for the estate or the trust. You cannot use the deceased person's Social Security number, or use your own. There is one exception to this rule: if you are the surviving spouse, and everything is left to you either outright or in a revocable living trust, you can continue to use your own Social Security number for these assets, but that's because, essentially, they are your assets.

This ID number, called an EIN ("employer identification number"), is like a Social Security number for the estate or trust. You'll need it to open a bank or brokerage account, and it's what the bank or other financial institution is going to use to report the interest earned on those accounts until they are distributed to the estate's or trust's beneficiaries.

The easiest way to apply for an EIN is on the IRS website, The process just takes a few minutes and, when you are done, the site gives you the EIN that you'll use for the estate or the trust. If you don't have access to a computer, you can fax in an application to this number: (859) 669-5760.


How to Inherit Life Insurance in Pennsylvania

Wills and trusts get a lot of attention in the movies when it comes to inheritances, but in real life, life insurance often is the source of the biggest cash benefit to families and loved ones. And who gets that money usually has absolutely NOTHING to do with either a Will or a trust, instead, it is the policy's beneficiaries who will receive that death benefit.

When someone purchases a life insurance policy, they have to name primary and secondary beneficiaries.  The primary beneficiary receives the death benefit if they survive the insured party; the secondary beneficiaries will receive that benefit only if the primary beneficiary does not survive the insured party.

In order to claim these benefits you'll need to know the following things:

  • Whether the decedent owned any life insurance
  • Who the beneficiaries are for those policies
  • What kind of policy it is
  • How to make a claim for the benefits

Read on to find out how to do each of these four things.

For example, if a husband, Sam, names his wife, Lani, as the primary beneficiary of his $1 million policy, and then his three adult children, in equal shares, as the secondary beneficiaries of that policy,


How to Inherit Retirement Assets in Pennsylvania

In December of 2019, Congress passed a law called the SECURE Act, making big changes to retirement and estate planning. (“SECURE” stands for Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement.) One of the most significant changes is what happens if you inherit an IRA.

The old rules gave several choices to someone who inherited an IRA. One option was to withdraw only a small amount from the inherited account each year. The withdrawal amount was based on the beneficiary’s age, and it allowed the bulk of the inherited IRA to continue to grow tax free. (The beneficiary paid tax on only the small amount that they withdrew.)

But not anymore.

How the SECURE Act Affects Inherited IRAs

Now, the beneficiary must withdraw all of the money in an inherited IRA by the tenth anniversary of the plan holder’s death. And all of those withdrawals are subject to income tax at the beneficiary’s tax rate. The law does not require minimum distributions during that ten-year period, but it is no longer possible to stretch out withdrawals over the beneficiary’s life.

Certain people are not subject to the ten-year rule:

  • surviving spouses
  • people with certain chronic illnesses
  • people with certain disabilities
  • children under the age of 18 (after they turn 18, the ten-year rule applies), and
  • beneficiaries who are less than ten years younger than the deceased plan holder. more...  

How to Inherit Joint Tenancy Property in Pennsylvania

Property held in joint tenancy passes automatically to the surviving joint tenant (or tenants) when a joint tenant dies. It is probably the most common way that people own property together. No probate is necessary, just some paperwork. This is called "right of survivorship" and it makes the transfer of property upon death really easy.

Married couples can own most of their property this way: homes, cars, bank accounts, and brokerage accounts. Unrelated partners can own property as joint tenants, and sometimes parents will own property with their children this way, as well. more...  

What Pennsylvania Residents Need To Know About Federal Capital Gains Taxes

Capital gains taxes are taxes that you need to pay when you sell an asset that has gone up in value. You are taxed on the difference between what you bought the asset for (called "basis") and what you sold it for. Every piece of property has a tax basis. Generally, its the amount a person paid for the property. When you inherit an asset, you need to know what basis that asset has, so that, later, if you go ahead and sell it, you can calculate the capital gains taxes that will be due. (Currently, the federal long-term capital gains rate is 15% for most people; 20% + a 3.8% (23.8%) Medicaid surcharge for high earners.)

Stepped-Up Basis: The Inheritor's Big Tax Benefit

Generally, an asset is inherited with a basis equal to its date of death value. This is called a stepped-up basis, because an asset's basis is increased to reflect its value at the date of death. A step-up in basis is a big tax advantage because it reduces the capital gains taxes due upon the sale of an inherited asset. The higher the tax basis, the lower the capital gains upon the sale of that property.  more...  

What's New for 2023 for Federal and State Estate, Inheritance, and Gift Tax Law

Here's a quick summary of the new gift, estate, and inheritance changes that came along in 2022. Spoiler alert: very few people now have to pay these taxes.

1. The federal estate and gift tax exemption increased from $5,000,000 in 2017 to $10,000,000 in 2018, indexed to inflation. In 2023, that is $12.92 million. This higher federal exemption means that fewer people will be subject to the estate tax since only estates with assets that exceed that exemption are required to file a federal estate tax return. (Surviving spouses of decedents with estates less than this exemption may still decide to file an estate tax return to request portability, which is the ability to use their deceased spouse's unused exemption at their own death, but they are not required to do so.) Click here to find out more about when an estate tax return does, or doesn't, need to be filed.

2. Several states have increased their state estate tax exemptions, either because they were already indexed for inflation or because they changed their state laws, either way, this means that fewer residents of those states will be subject to estate tax. more...  

How to Find an Inheritance & Probate Lawyer in Pennsylvania

You don’t always need to hire an inheritance and probate lawyer to help you wrap up someone’s estate -- but you should at least take some time to consider the ways a probate lawyer can help you.

Why Hire an Inheritance & Probate Lawyer

Inheritance & probate law is a specialty, and a good probate lawyer can make a big difference in the results you get. If you decide to hire a lawyer, you’ll want to find someone who focuses only or almost exclusively on probate cases, rather than using a general practice lawyer or a lawyer who concentrates on some other legal subject.


How To Use ChatGPT (and Other AI Tools) to Navigate the Probate Process in Pennsylvania

If you've been reading at all, you know that the improvement in generative AI tools, like ChatGPT v.4, have made it possible now to get work done more quickly than ever, especially in knowledge fields like law.

This is great news for consumers because now they can use ChatGPT as a probate assistant when dealing with transferring the property of a loved one when someone dies in their state.

This article will show you how to effectively use AI tools like ChatGPT, Google Bard, and to help you through the probate process in your state.

Let's get started. more...  

Forms for Avoiding Probate in Pennsylvania

If you plan ahead, here's a collection of forms you can use while you're still alive, if you plan ahead, to avoid having your assets go through probate when you die.

  • Transfer-on-Death (Beneficiary) Deeds
  • Living Trusts

If you are already in probate, you may find the forms for transferring property useful.

  • Quitclaim Deed
  • Assignment of Rights


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