Pennsylvania Intestate Succession–What is it and How Does it Work?

Dying before you make a will in Pennsylvania means some of your assets may automatically go to your nearest relative, according to Pennsylvania’s CHAPTER 21–Intestate succession laws. However, only assets that normally would have been bequeathed through a will are affected by these intestate laws, which includes assets owned exclusively by the deceased that are legally in their name.

Some assets that aren’t assigned by a will are not affected by Chapter 21. For example:

  • Life insurance proceeds
  • Property that has been transferred to a living trust
  • Securities held in transfer-on-death accounts
  • Funds in 401Ks, IRAs and other types of retirement accounts
  • Property owned by the deceased that is considered “joint tenancy” property or “tenancy-by-the-entirety”
  • Payable on death accounts

These entities will pass to surviving beneficiaries or surviving co-owners regardless of whether there is or is not a valid will.

Understand that intestate succession law does not give a testator the opportunity to plan for guardianship of minor children, leave specific instructions for the care of the estate, or leave particular belongings to particular beneficiaries.  Moreover, the state can makes changes to the intestate succession statute at any time.

Pennsylvania Intestate Laws–So Who Gets What?

Under Pennsylvania’s intestate succession regulation, who gets the decedent’s assets depends on whether they had surviving parents, close relatives or children, parents. This chart provides a general overview of what happens someone dies in Pennsylvania without creating a valid will:

  • Deceased has living children/no spouse
  • Surviving children inherit applicable assets
  • Deceased has a living spouse but no living parents or descendants
  • The surviving spouse of the deceased spouse inherits all assets
  • Deceased has descendants and a living spouse
  • The surviving spouse inherits the initial $30,000 of the deceased’s intestate property, in addition to half of the balance Living descendants inherit the remaining assets
  • Deceased has descendants and a living spouse who is not the parent of the descendants
  • The surviving spouse inherits half of the deceased’s intestate property The descendants inherit the remaining assets
  • Deceased has a living parents and a spouse
  • The surviving spouse inherits the initial $30,000 of the deceased’s intestate property, in addition to half of the balance Living parents inherit the remaining assets
  • Deceased has surviving parents but no descendants or spouse
  • Surviving parents of the deceased inherit all assets.
  • The deceased has living siblings but no surviving parents, spouse or descendants
  • The deceased’s siblings inherit all assets

Pennsylvania’s intestate succession rules do not apply to surviving spouses who have “willfully neglected or refused to perform the duty” of supporting a decedent for at least one year. Intestate laws also do not apply if the decedent dies in Pennsylvania while undergoing divorce proceedings (20 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2106).

Children and Pennsylvania Intestate Law

For a decedent’s children to receive assets when no will exists, Pennsylvania courts must deem them as legal children of the deceased. Adopted children are treated the same as biological children in regards to delegating assets but stepchildren or foster children whom the deceased never legally adopted do not automatically receive the same shares afforded to biological or legally adopted children.

If a decedent had biological children they previously put up for adoption and who were ultimately adopted by someone else, these children are not entitled to any of the deceased’s assets. Alternately, if the decedent’s spouse adopted his or her biological children, these children will then receive their share of assets.


  • If the decedent was a grandparent and one of their grandchildren was legally adopted by someone else, that grandchild may receive some portion of the estate.
  • Children conceived by the deceased but not born until after his death are entitled to receive a share of the estate.
  • If the decedent was not married to the mother of his children at the time they were born, these children are still entitled to a share of the assets if the deceased already acknowledged paternity or if paternity is later established by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (20 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2107).

Can Pennsylvania Take Your Property When No Will Exists?

Although Pennsylvania intestate succession laws technically assert that dying without a will means possibly losing your assets to the state (Orphan’s Court), this rarely occurs because laws are written in a way to facilitate property transfer to anyone remotely related to the deceased. Even first, second, third cousins, great-aunts and uncles or nephews and nieces will recieve something from an estate left behind by someone who neglected to create a will.

However, a few exclusive rules govern this “anyone remotely related” aspect of Pennsylvania’s intestate succession laws. For example:

  • Someone who is eligible to inherit assets from a family member who died without making a will must live at least five days following his or her death. Even if the decedent had been married for 40 years and their spouse died in a car accident the day after he or she died, the dead spouse’s estate would not received any of the decedent’s assets.
  • Surviving relatives legally entitled to inherit a share of the deceased’s property are eligible to inherit that share even if they are not citizens of the U.S. or legally living in the U.S.

Interestingly, Pennsylvania intestate succession laws also include a “slayer rule” which states that anyone who “unlawfully or willfully” kills the deceased will not inherit any portion of the dead person’s estate (20 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2106).

These “Rules of Succession” are officially described in CHAPTER 21–INTESTATE SUCCESSION; § 2104 and are as follows:

1. The part of the estate passing to any such persons shall be divided into as many equal shares as there shall be persons in the nearest degree of consanguinity to the decedent living and taking shares therein and persons in that degree who have died before the decedent and have left issue to survive him who take shares therein.

2. One equal share shall pass to each such living person in the nearest degree and one equal share shall pass by representation to the issue of each such deceased person, except that no issue of a child of an uncle or aunt of the decedent shall be entitled to any share of the estate unless there be no relatives as close as a child of an uncle or aunt living and taking a share therein, in which case the grandchildren of uncles and aunts of the decedent shall be entitled to share, but no issue of a grandchild of an uncle or aunt shall be entitled to any share of the estate.

3.When the persons entitled to take under this chapter other than as a surviving spouse are all in the same degree of consanguinity to the decedent, they shall take in equal shares.

4. Persons taking under this chapter shall take without distinction between those of the whole and those of the half blood.

5. Real and personal estate shall pass without regard to whether the decedent or any person otherwise entitled to take under this chapter is or has been an alien.

6.A person related to the decedent through two lines of relationship shall take one share only which shall be the larger share.

What is the Pennsylvania Orphan’s Court?

Even without a will, the decedent’s funeral expenses, taxes, debts and any other administrative expenditures are paid before the estate is distributed. This task is managed by an administrator appointed by the Pennsylvania Register of Wills who oversees the estate’s disposition. Issues that emerge as a result of a decedent not having a will falls under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Pennyslvania’s Orphans’ Court. The Orphan’s Court is meant to protect the property and personal rights of all people who are not able to manage their own affairs–including Pennsylvania residents who die without making a will. Also included within this rubric are incapacitated individuals, minors, trusts and nonprofit organizations.

Avoid Pennsylvania’s Intestate Succession Laws

To avoid lengthy interference by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Orphan’s Court regarding the distribution of estates without wills, anyone who has a strong wish to leave certain items to certain individuals after their death needs to consider having a will legally drafted and implemented by an attorney specializing in estate planning law.

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