The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, Pennsylvania offers a few probate shortcuts for "small estates." If the property you leave behind at your death is below a certain amount, your loved ones can use these procedures to transfer your property more quickly and with less hassle.
Pennsylvania's small estate proceeding is called a "settlement of small estate on petition." This procedure is available if all of the property left behind is worth $50,000 or less. But these types of property don't count in the tally:
If the court approves the your petition for settlement of small estate, it will issue a "decree of distribution," and the people and organizations holding the deceased person's property will be directed to transfer the property to the new owners.
Pennsylvania law also recognizes a few circumstances where money is directly released to family members or a funeral director without having to go through probate. These circumstances are discussed below.
Employers may pay up to $10,000 in wages, salary, or other compensation to the employee's surviving spouse, child, parent, or sibling (in that order of priority). Probate court approval is not necessary. (20 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3101(a).)
Pennsylvania law authorizes financial institutions to release up to $10,000 to certain surviving family members, without probate court authorization. Again, the order of priority is: spouse, child, parent, and sibling. (20 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3101(b).)
All the family member must do is show the bank a certified copy of the death certificate and proof that funeral expenses have been paid.
If at the time of death, the deceased person was living in a nursing home or similar facility, the facility can use funds that remain in the patient's care account to pay up to $10,000 in funeral expenses. This payment can be made directly to a funeral director without probate.
Whatever is left in the care account (but not exceeding $10,000 when added to the funeral expenses) can be paid directly to a surviving spouse, child, parent, or sibling (in that order of priority). (20 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3101(c).)
If an insurance company owes the deceased person's estate up to $11,000 in life insurance benefits, and the personal representative of the estate hasn't claimed the policy proceeds within 60 days after the death, the company may pay the money to a surviving spouse, child, parent, or sibling (in that order of priority) without probate court approval. (20 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3101(d).)
For help determining whether or not an estate qualifies for one of these probate shortcuts, or handling an estate in general, see The Executor's Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo) or Estate Planning Basics, by Denis Clifford (Nolo).
For more on Pennsylvania estate planning issues, see our section on Pennsylvania Estate Planning.