Why I Can’t Disinherit My Spouse in Pennsylvania

Although Pennsylvania generally allows deceased spouse ( Testator) to give their property to anyone they wish, this right is limited by a law referred to as an elective share which is designed to protect surviving spouses from being disinherited. Before any property is distributed, the spouse is entitled to a family exemption of $3,500 from the estate. A spouse can then inherit anything left to her in her deceased spouse’s will. However, if the decedent disinherited her (left her out of the will), she is still entitled to inherit and claim her “elective share.” Section 2203 of the Pennsylvania Code sets the elective share at one-third of the decedent’s estate. If the spouse was left out of the will or was left less than one-third of the estate, she has the right to request her elective share from the orphan’s court in the county the estate was probated in. The Elective share will only be paid if the surviving spouse claims it within six months of the Testators death the date of probate whichever is later. The disinherited spouse must notify the Orphans’ Court and the Executor or Administrator of her intention to claim an elective share in writing.

When determining how to pay the elective share the Orphans’ Court will attempt to honor the Testator’s will as much as possible. For instance, if the will makes a specific gift and there are sufficient assets to pay the elective share without using the specific gift, the beneficiary of the specific gift will likely receive that item. If there is not enough probate property to satisfy the full amount of the elective share, all of the remaining probate property is subject to the claim and any gifts or bequests will be reduced proportionately to pay the remaining balance.

The elective share is equal to one-third of the combined value of the following types of property:

1. Property passing by the Testator’s will.

2. Annuity rights transferred by the deceased spouse.

3. Property transferred within one year of the spouse’s death, to the extent that its value exceeds $3,000.

4. Property the deceased spouse transferred during the marriage, but retained the right to:
a. receive income from the property.
b. use the property.
c. take back the transferred property.
d. regain ownership by a right of survivorship.
e. transfer the property by acting alone.

Also anything the disinherited spouse would receive that was owned jointly with the Testator.

Please call Gregory J. Spadea at Spadea & Associates, LLC in Ridely Park, PA at  610-521-0604 if you need assistance in claiming the elective share or have any other estate administration questions.

Why Should I Have a Will?

A will is the starting point of any good estate plan. A will is a legal document that directs how your estate is administered and allows distribution of your assets to your named beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries after your death. A properly drafted will protects your family by helping them meet their future financial needs after your death. A will minimizes your taxes by reducing the size of your taxable estate. Having a will also avoids intestacy proceedings to determine how your estate should be distributed. Having a will also avoids your beneficiaries from posting a bond to probate your estate. It is very important to name an executor who is responsible for settling the estate, filing all the inheritance tax, estate tax and income tax returns and carrying out the provisions of the Will.

It also enables you and your spouse to set up a testamentary trust for your children if you both were to die at the same time. You would also name a trustee that would watch over the trust assets and distribute them to pay for support, education and maintenance of your children until they reach twenty five or any age you and your spouse deem appropriate. A will allows you to name a guardian to raise minor children, which avoids having the Orphans Court appoint a guardian based on the information it can gather after you and your spouse die.

You can state in your will that you may leave a memorandum suggesting the distribution of certain personal items that you want distributed after your death such as jewelry, china, coin collections, memorabilia, tools or golf clubs etc. You can avoid potential conflict by leaving a signed and dated list with your will explaining who should get these personal items.

You should consider updating your will if any of the following occur:

1. Substantial increase or decrease in your estate assets.
2. You retire or sell your residence.
3. If you get married or get divorced.
4. Any new births or deaths in your family.
5. You move to another state or country.
6. You start a business, add a partner or terminate one.
7. The federal estate tax or income tax laws change.
However, a will only covers assets in your name. It does not cover jointly owned assets or assets with named beneficiaries such as retirement or brokerage accounts. Therefore you should regularly update your beneficiary designations on those types of accounts.
The most important thing a will gives you is peace of mind knowing that your family and loved ones are taken care of.

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