Friday, September 06, 2013

PA Small Estate & Deposit Payment Thresholds Increased

The Pennsylvania Probate, Estates & Fiduciaries Code (Title 20 of PA Consolidated Statutes) was amended in minor, but helpful, ways by Act 35 of 2013, which became effective on August 31, 2013.

The changes in affected sections of Title 20 are noted in the adopted form of House Bill 513, Printer's No. 2169, of the 2013-2014 Legislative SessionHB 513's History indicates it was adopted by the Legislature on June 29, 2013, and signed by the Governor on July 2, 2013.  It became effective 60 days thereafter.

Under long-standing statutory law regarding "Dispositions Independent of Letters", pursuant to 20 Pa. C.S. § 3102 ("Settlement of small estates upon petition"), a "small estate" -- defined as one with assets less than $25,000 and no real estate -- could be settled by a customized petition presented to the Orphans' Court Division, as an alternative to a formal probate procedure.

Section 3102 provides, in its first sentence, as follows:
When any person dies domiciled in the Commonwealth owning property (exclusive of real estate and of property payable under section 3101 (relating to payments to family and funeral directors), but including personal property claimed as the family exemption) of a gross value not exceeding [$$$ = AMOUNT], the orphans' court division of the county wherein the decedent was domiciled at the time of his death, upon petition of any party in interest, in its discretion, with or without appraisement, and with such notice as the court shall direct, and whether or not letters have been issued or a will probated, may direct distribution of the property (including property not paid under section 3101) to the parties entitled thereto.
The prior law had stated an AMOUNT of $25,000.  The amendment increased the AMOUNT to $50,000, but made no other changes to that Section.

Other, more frequently used dispositions of a decedent's assets of a limited value without a formal probate were provided under 20 Pa. C.S. § 3101  ("Payments to family and funeral directors").  That Section continues to provide for payments directly to certain persons or organizations regarding five different classes of assets up to certain amounts.

Act 35 amended the maximum amounts for two of the five classes of assets, as set forth in subsections (b) and (c) only.
  • (a)  Wages, salary or employee benefits (remains at not more than $5,000)
  • (b)  Deposit account (previously not more than $3,500, which was increased to $10,000)
  • (c)  Patient's care account (previously not more than $4,000, which was increased to $10,000)
  • (d)  Life insurance payable to estate (remains at not more than $11,000)
  • (e)  Unclaimed property (remains at not more than $11,000)
In two further helpful tweaks to subsection (b), Act 35 clarified that a "credit union" is included as a financial institution holding a "deposit account" and authorized to make such payments directly, without proof of an estate administration.  It also amended the law to be directive, as opposed to optional, for a financial institution to make such payments upon proper application.  The word "may" was replaced with "shall".

Section 3102 (b) now provides:
Deposit account.--Any bank, savings association, savings and loan association, building and loan association, credit union or other savings organization, at any time after the death of a depositor, member or certificate holder, shall pay the amount on deposit or represented by the certificate, when the total standing to the credit of the decedent in that institution does not exceed $10,000, to the spouse, any child, the father or mother or any sister or brother (preference being given in the order named) of the deceased depositor, member or certificate holder, provided that a receipted funeral bill or an affidavit, executed by a licensed funeral director which sets forth that satisfactory arrangements for payment of funeral services have been made, is presented. Any bank, association, credit union or other savings organization making such a payment shall be released to the same extent as if payment had been made to a duly appointed personal representative of the decedent and it shall not be required to see to the application thereof. Any person to whom payment is made shall be answerable therefor to anyone prejudiced by an improper distribution.
Such amendments are helpful to many folks facing an immediate need for money for death-related expenses, or simple collection of stray or remaining assets in a decedent's name, such as a solely-held financial account, a small insurance policy, periodic final wages and benefits, or a balance remaining in a patient's care facility account.  

Likely, these changes will not affect old or stale accounts, due to periodic sweep collections by the Commonwealth since 1998 of inactive assets pursuant to the Unclaimed Property Law and Regulations.  However, subsection (e) of Section 3102 would permit recovery of such collected funds due to a decedent, if less than $11,000.

These sections do not avoid accountability or even tax reporting upon a death, but provide an expedited way for collection and application of funds without formal probate.