In Pennsylvania the personal representative is the fiduciary appointed by the Register of Wills to perform the tasks required to settle the estate of a decedent. PA ST 20 Pa.C.S. § 102. As a fiduciary, the personal representative is legally obligated to perform their duties with the highest level of care and loyalty. If a personal representative violates the duty of care or loyalty they will be held personally responsible. While the personal representative must complete many tasks required to settle the decedent’s estate, the two main tasks of the personal representatives are to pay estate debts and distribute estate assets to beneficiaries and heirs.
Personal Representative Appointment
The personal representative does not have the authority to act on behalf of the estate until they submit a petition to the Register of Wills and receive approval. PA ST 20 Pa.C.S. § 901. Upon approval the Register of Wills will issue the personal representative a document called “letters testamentary” or “letters of administration” which authorizes the person to act as personal representative of the decedent’s estate. If the deceased person left a valid will, the document is referred to as “Letters Testamentary.” If the person died without a will, the document is called “Letters of Administration.”
Duties and Responsibilities
Once the personal representative has received letters, they have the responsibility and duty to complete the following estate administration tasks:
- Notifying creditors and heirs. Within 3 months of appointment, the personal representative is required to send a Notice of Estate Administration to interested parties such as the decedent’s surviving spouse and children, beneficiaries named in the will, and intestate heirs. Pa. O.C.R. 10.5
- Inventory the assets. The personal representative must identify estate assets, take control of them, and secure them. The personal representative is not responsible for all of the decedent’s assets, just the assets that are “probate assets.” Such assets include personal and real property owned solely by the decedent as well as property that the decedent owned jointly with others as tenants in common. Property that is not probate property is property that passes automatically to specific beneficiaries without the court’s involvement. This includes property that has named beneficiaries such as 401(k)s, IRAs, insurance policies and annuities, as well POD and TOD accounts. In addition, assets owned jointly with others with rights of survivorship are not probate property. The personal representative must file an inventory of estate probate assets with the Registrar of Wills. The inventory must be filed by the time that the personal representative files the final accounting. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3301
- Continuation of business. As part of taking control of estate assets, the personal representative may have to continue the decedent’s business for the benefit of the estate. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3314
- Notify creditors and pay debts. The personal representative is required to publish the decedent’s death in two newspapers. The two newspapers must have circulation in the county in which the decedent resided. The claims period starts on the day the notice is first published and ends a year after that date. That is the period during which creditors must file their claims. Creditors can submit their claims directly to the personal representative or file a formal claim with the Register of Wills. If there is not enough money in the estate to pay all valid claims that were filed within the claims period, then the personal representative must pay claims based on a statutory order of priority.
- Asset distribution. Asset distribution can only begin after debts have been paid. At that time, with the court’s permission, the personal representative can distribute estate assets based on the terms of the decedent’s will. If the decedent did not leave a will, then the estate is distributed based on Pennsylvania’s laws of intestate succession which provides that intestate estates go to the decedent’s next of kin. Generally, that would be the decedent’s surviving spouse and children. 23 Pa.C.S. § 2101 et seq.
Compensation of Personal Representative
Under Pennsylvania law, personal representatives are entitled to receive reasonable compensation for their work. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3537. However, the statute does not provide a specific formula for determining what is reasonable. The court will review the actions the personal representative completed, the size of the estate, and the complexity of the process.