Dying Without a Last Will and Testament in Pennsylvania

Philadelphia skyline in Pennsylvania
•••

Joe Daniel Price / Getty Images

When a Pennsylvania resident dies without having made a last will, the intestacy succession laws found in Chapter 21, Title 20 of the Statutes of Pennsylvania, dictate who inherits the deceased person's probate estate.

Here is the definition of intestacy and a summary of the Pennsylvania intestacy succession laws in various situations.

Intestacy Succession Laws

A person drafts a will to leave their belongings to the people they love, focusing on how they are distributed. Without a will, someone has "died intestate."

A "testator" (man) or "testatrix" (woman) are legal terms for someone who has died with a will.

States pass intestate succession laws to establish a precedence for possessions and assets given to the family to keep things orderly and reduce confusion and conflicts.

Probate is the legal process and reviews an estate goes through when possessions are not left via a will or joint ownership.

Survived by a Spouse and Descendants

Here is what will happen if the deceased person is survived by a spouse or descendants (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.) and left no will:

  • Survived by a spouse and descendants, all of whom are descendants of the spouse: The surviving spouse inherits the first $30,000 of the deceased spouse's probate estate plus one-half of the balance. The descendants inherit and split the remainder evenly. The legal term for evenly dividing possessions among descendants is per stirpes.
  • Survived by a spouse and descendants, some of whom are not the descendants of the surviving spouse: Since some of the deceased person's descendants are not descendants of the surviving spouse (in other words, the deceased person had children from a prior marriage or relationship), the surviving spouse inherits one-half of the probate estate and the descendants inherit and split the remaining one-half, per stirpes.
  • Survived by a spouse and no parents or descendants: The surviving spouse inherits 100% of the probate estate.
  • Survived by descendants and no spouse: The deceased person's descendants inherit 100% of the probate estate, per stirpes.

Not Survived by Descendants

Here is what will happen if the deceased person is not survived by any descendants (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.) and left no will:

  • Survived by a spouse and one or both parents: The surviving spouse inherits the first $30,000 of the deceased spouse's probate estate plus one-half of the balance. The parents inherit the remainder in equal shares, or the sole surviving parent inherits the remaining one-half.
  • Survived by siblings and no spouse or parents: The deceased person's siblings inherit 100% of the probate estate, per stirpes.
  • Not survived by parents, siblings or descendants of siblings: The probate estate passes to grandparents, aunts or uncles. The inheritance path continues to great uncles, great aunts or cousins of any degree. Lastly, it would pass to the children, parents or siblings of a predeceased spouse. In the unlikely circumstance that the deceased person is not survived by any family members as described above, the entire probate estate escheats to (becomes owned by) the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Inheriting From a Pennsylvania Intestate Estate

If you have a relative that has passed and you believe, based on the information presented above, that you are entitled to an intestate share of your relative's estate, you still may not inherit anything.

Your relative may have left all non-probate property (property that is not sent through the probate review), or the debts your relative owed when they died may exceed the value of the probate estate—making the estate insolvent (unable to cover the debts, leaving nothing to inherit).

If you are not sure of your legal rights as an intestate heir in Pennsylvania, you should consult with a Pennsylvania probate attorney to be sure.

The information contained in this article is not tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. For current tax or legal advice, please consult with an accountant or an attorney.