How does Pennsylvania estate law help a surviving spouse?

On behalf of Scaringi Law posted in Estate Planning on Friday, April 17, 2015.

How is a decedent's estate regarded under Pennsylvania law when there is a surviving spouse? The answer depends on several factors, such as whether there was a prenuptial agreement and whether the assets in question were held as tenants by the entirety.

A couple that titles property acquired during their marriage as tenants by the entireties means that the asset is owned jointly by each spouse, that each shares the right to possession, and each has the right of survivorship. When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse becomes the sole owner of the asset. Said another way, a jointly held asset generally does not require probate before transferring to the surviving owner.

Contractual policies that were owned by the decedent but named a beneficiary, such as life insurance or IRAs, are also generally considered non-probate assets. Thus, court involvement is usually not required before those policy assets transfer to the named beneficiary.

However, naming beneficiary designations and jointly titling property should not be regarded as an excuse to avoid developing an estate plan. Our law firm would caution against this approach, for several reasons. First, an individual may wish to direct how property is transferred to children or other heirs, rather than leaving that decision entirely to the surviving spouse.

In addition, it is very common to discover that a few assets in an estate were unaccounted for, and thus may need to go through probate, depending on their value. For example, if a decedent had several bank accounts, perhaps one of those accounts did not name a beneficiary. Finally, state law generally presumes that personal property was jointly held between spouses in a marriage. However, some assets may require special attention. A car titled only in the decedent's name may need to be transferred to the surviving spouse. Our law firm focuses on estate planning and can answer these and other questions.

Source: FindLaw, "Inheritance Law and Your Rights," copyright 2014, Thomson Reuters

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