Wills for Heroes is a program in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Bar Association that provides free wills, living wills, and powers of attorney to first responders and their families. Appointments are required along with proof of military or public service. There is also a limit on the size of the estate to utilize this service. Appointments can be made online at the Pennsylvania Bar Association website. Each appointment slot is one hour. Each participant will have their final, notarized documents to take home with them by the conclusion of their appointment. If a spouse or significant other is also participating, their appointment will be immediately following that of the first responder. The program is made possible through the time of volunteers including attorneys, reviewers and witnesses.
It is possible for a spouse intentionally left out of the other spouse's will to still receive a share of the estate in the event of death. Pennsylvania law provides for an "elective share" pursuant to 20 Pa. C.S. 2203(a). This law provides that if a person is still married at the time of their death with no divorce pending, the surviving spouse can elect to receive 1/3 of that person's estate. There are items that are excluded from the estate in instances where an elective share will be applied. 2203(b) states the following exceptions: (1) any conveyance made with the express consent or joinder of the surviving spouse; (2) the proceeds of insurance, including accidental death benefits, on the life of the decedent; (3) interests under any broad-based nondiscriminatory pension, profit sharing, stock bonus, deferred compensation, disability, death benefit or other such plan established by an employer for benefit of its employees and their beneficiaries; (4) property passing by the decedent's exercise or non-exercise of any power of appointment given by someone other than the decedent.
After a family member's death, the first step should be to determine if they had a last will and testament. If so, you will want to locate the original will and make sure it has been properly signed and witnessed. The named executor will need to go to the Register of Wills with the original will, photo identification, and some method of payment to open the estate. If the named executor does not want to act they can sign a renunciation which would allow someone else to take on the role. The Register of Wills will give the executor a short certificate of letters testamentary. This document authorizes the executor to handle the decedent's estate. If a loved one has passed away without a will, the Pennsylvania laws on intestacy will govern how their estate is handled. The closest kin can apply to the Register of Wills to be designated as the administrator of the estate. They will also be granted a short certificate as proof of their authority to handle the estate.
An accounting is one of the final steps in administering an estate. It is the final reconciliation of all assets in the estate, all expenses of the estate, and any interim distributions. A formal accounting is filed with the court. An informal accounting may be done as well and is presented to the beneficiaries as a summary of the administration of the estate. Pennsylvania and New Jersey accept the national standard form for filing of accounting. The accounting should list all the items that were received into the estate. This may be separated into categories such as real estate, cash accounts, personal property, bonds, mutual funds, etc.
An inventory of probate assets will need to be filed with the court in the process of probating the will. The first step for the executor or administrator is to gather information on what assets exist. For real estate, ownership should be confirmed first via review of deed or a title search. If the home is not promptly sold, it should be appraised to obtain an accurate value. Be sure to inventory the contents of the home as well. This is particularly important if the will provides for specific bequests of personal property such as jewelry, collections or automobiles. For bank accounts and securities, statements should be obtained from the financial institution or broker.
An appraisal may be needed to ascertain an accurate value of an asset in a divorce or estate matter. Parties may elect to use one appraiser or have competing appraisers. When choosing an appraiser, it is important to make sure the appraiser is licensed or certified. A licensed appraiser has met the minimum requirements for practice. A certified appraiser must complete additional classroom hours and practice in the field. A list of all licensed and certified appraisers is available on the appraisal subcommittee website.
An annuity is an investment of a resource in order to receive a fixed payment. Once the investment is annuitized, the original investment cannot be returned. At that point, the characterization of the investment is changed from an asset to income. An annuity is considered marital property and subject to division in the event of divorce. Parties should be careful to review the terms of the annuity contract in determining the best way to split this asset. The goal should be to minimize any tax implications or penalties in dividing the asset. The best option may be off-setting the value of the annuity with another asset in the divorce such as a marital residence.
Pennsylvania does apply a tax on assets passed through probate or intestacy. The amount of tax depends on the value of the estate as well as the relationship of the beneficiaries to the decedent. There is no tax imposed for assets passing to a surviving spouse or to a child under 21 years old. There is a 4.5% tax for assets passing to children over 21, parents or grandparents. There is a 12% tax for assets passing to siblings. There is a 15% tax for all other transfers including to aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins or persons of no relation. There are some institutions exempt from the inheritance tax including certain government entities and charitable organizations.
Medicaid is a need-based health care program. It is a federal program that is administered on a state level. Elderly persons needing long-term care often try to utilize Medicaid to assist with the expenses. Appropriate estate planning can assist in this regard. Since Medicaid is for low-income individuals, there are limits on the amount of income and assets a party can have. An individual should plan ahead to make sure any countable assets and income are structured so as not to affect any future applications for Medicaid. Medicaid can look back five years from the date of an application so it is important to do any relevant estate planning well in advance.
An inventory must be filed with the court in administering an estate. The inventory should identify all probate assets of the decedent at the time of death. This may require some investigation by the executor. A good starting point is to monitor the decedent's mail for evidence of statements for accounts. In an increasingly electronic society, however, access to digital accounts may be more productive as more and more parties elect for email correspondence over hard copies in the mail.