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Let's Talk About Wills

What is a Will?
A will is any written document which directs the manner of distribution of anything owned by the writer at the time of death. It should name an executor whose job is to probate the Will after death and carry out its instructions. A will may also appoint guardians of the estates of minors who receive property under the Will.

Should Everyone have a Will?
To make a Will in Pennsylvania, the person making the Will must be of sound mind and 18 years of age or older. Everyone, whether wealthy or of modest means, should have a Will. This guarantees that your lifetime accumulations are given to those persons or institution whom you wish to benefit.

What if there is no Will?
If there is no will, the Pennsylvania Intestate Law directs who will be the beneficiaries of your estate regardless of any special needs of persons you might like to benefit. Furthermore, you have no choice over who will settle your estate or serve as guardian of minors. Under the law the Register of Wills and Orphans' Court must make these choices for you, and your estate may have to post a bond thus incurring additional expense.

Does a Will Become Outdated?
The last will of a deceased person is valid no matter how old it is. But good planning requires periodic review and revision of a Will to reflect changes which occur during the lifetime of the testator, in the nature and size of his estate, and in the provisions of the law controlling the settlement of estates.

Must a Will be Witnessed?
No, but two witnesses, subscribing or non-subscribing, must appear at the Register of Wills' office at the time of probate to prove and identify the testator's signature. Subscribing witnesses may appear before a notary. A will witnessed by subscribing witnesses can better survive a will contest because the testator's legal capacity to make a will is presumed. When a self-proving affidavit accompanies the original Will, it is not necessary for the original witnesses to appear before the Register of Wills.

When Must a Will be Registered?
Contrary to what some believe, a Will does not get registered in Pennsylvania during the lifetime of the maker. It is recorded or probated by the Register of Wills only after death occurs. A will becomes a public record only upon death and probate in the Register of Wills Office. This permits the maker to change or rewrite his Will as circumstance require and to keep its terms confidential during his lifetime. A decedent's "last" Will automatically revokes all prior Wills and is the only one which is valid.

When Should a Will be Changed?
The disposition of one's property is determined by many personal factors including family, personal relationships, and interests in charities. A Will should be changed when those relationships, including divorce and death, occur. For example, Wills executed before marriage or the birth of a child are not binding on either. Spouses or children can receive what they would have received in the absence of a will. Changes to a Will may be made by writing a new Will or a Codicil conforming to the requirements for a valid Will.

How Much Does a Will Cost?
If you have a simple will drafted by an attorney, the cost is usually modest. You can write your own will, however, it must conform to Pennsylvania statutes in order to be valid.

Does a Will Create More Probate Expenses?
No, a well-drawn Will may save expense. A Will appointing a Pennsylvania resident or which waives bond saves the estate an annual bond premium. Specific instructions in the Will may spare the estate the expense of obtaining special court orders.

Can Life Insurance Take the Place of a Will?
No, life insurance is just one kind of property that you may own. You need a will to give away your other assets.

Does Joint Ownership Avoid the Need for Having a Will?
Most assets held in joint names pass automatically to the survivor upon the death of one of them. There are advantages and disadvantages in holding assets jointly depending upon your particular circumstances. Your attorney can best advise you in this respect.

Are Taxes Payable on an Estate?
Yes, Pennsylvania Inheritance Taxes are payable on the value of most assets owned by the descendant at the time of death and are due within nine months after date of death. The Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Rate is 0% on assets passing to the spouse and those passing from children under 21 to their parents. Assets passing to lineal descendants (children, grandchildren, parents, & grandparents) are taxed at a rate of 4½%. The tax rate is 12% on assets passing between siblings and 15% to all other beneficiaries except bequests to charities and governmental entities which are exempt from taxes. The tax applies to the net estate after deductions. A Federal Estate Tax Return is due when the gross estate exceeds $2,000,000.00.

Please Note:
This information has been issued to inform and not to advise. It is based upon Pennsylvania law. The statements are general, and individual facts in a given case may alter their application or involve other laws not referred to here.

Register of Wills & Clerk of Orphans' Court
Donald Petrille, Jr., Esquire

Bucks County Courthouse
55 East Court Street 
3rd Floor, Administration Building 
Doylestown, PA 18901

Register of Wills: 215-348-6265
Orphans' Court: 215-348-6271
Fax: 215-348-6156 
registerofwills@buckscounty.org
orphanscourt@buckscounty.org

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Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 4:30 pm 
1st & 3rd Wednesday every month – 
open until 7:30 pm (Doylestown Office Only)

Offsite Location for Probate & Marriage License Application: 
Lower Bucks Government Service Center 
7321 New Falls Road
Levittown, PA 19055
Phone: 267-580-3585
Hours:
Monday through Friday 8:30 am to 4:00 pm
(Closed for lunch between 12:00 and 1:00 pm)
Appointments are encouraged at this location