This is the final installment of the intestate success series.  To see the other installments start here.

If you’ve already read the second post in this series, then you know that the intestate succession can be rather complicated when you leave a surviving spouse and other family members.  But what happens when you don’t have a surviving spouse?  How are assets distributed in those circumstances?  Well, it depends on who survives you.
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This is the second installment of our Intestate Laws series.  In case you missed the first one, check it out here.

Probably the biggest misconception people have about dying without a Will is that their spouse will just get everything.  Unfortunately, this is only the case under a small select set of circumstances.  I don’t know about you, but taking a chance that my situation would fit one of the few circumstances where my husband would inherit everything we worked for is not enough for me to leave it to the intestate laws to determine the distribution of my estate.  So what are the circumstances that leave everything to your spouse without a Will?  The only way your spouse will inherit all of your intestate estate if you do not have a proper Will, is if you have no living parents or children.  That is it.  No other circumstances allow for your spouse to inherit your entire intestate estate.  Outside of the intestate estate,  the only other way to ensure that your spouse inherits everything is for you to be absolutely 100% sure that every single thing you own is titled jointly with your spouse with right of survivorship or that you have named your spouse as a beneficiary on everything.  Speaking from experience, even the most diligent people forget to change beneficiary designations or something happens before they get around to it.  It is simply too risky to leave something so important to chance.
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“I’ve got to do a Will so that the government doesn’t get everything!”  I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard some version of this sentiment.  While I am certainly a proponent of having and regularly updating a Will, preventing the government from getting everything is not actually one of the reasons you need a Will.  Those of you who have read my Myths of Estate Planning series might remember some examples I have given about how probate assets are distributed when a person fails to have a Will. In this series of posts, we will help you understand what could happen if your estate is distributed according to Pennsylvania intestate rules.
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How often have you heard the term “probate” estate or assets?  Do you know what that term means?  What about “non-probate” assets?

Upon your death, the assets of your estate are divided into two different categories; probate and non-probate assets.

Probate assets are typically those assets that are titled in your name alone that do not have beneficiary designations or some other transfer on death designations.  Probate assets are also those assets in which you have a divisible interest, such as a joint tenancy – not joint with rights of survivorship.

The distribution of probate assets upon your death is governed either by your Will or Pennsylvania intestacy laws (watch for future blog posts about intestacy).  When you die with a Will, you are said to have died testate (with a last will and testament) as your Will directs the distribution of your probate estate.  If you die without a Will, you are said to have died intestate (without a last will and testament), in which case the intestacy laws will govern and dictate to whom your estate is to be distributed.  Intestacy laws are the “default rules” that apply only if you never had a Will or do not have a valid Will or your Will does not effectively dispose of your probate estate.
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“I’m so confused!  The woman at the bank said I have to keep this account here.  The guy at the insurance company said I should really do this.  And my friend said she didn’t do any of this.  I don’t know what to do!”

The above is a general excerpt of conversations I have with Executors all the time.  The first few months of handling an estate can be tough.  You have just lost someone close to you and now you need to sort out what they left behind and are dealing with so many people on so many matters.  You will get advice from almost everyone you encounter.  You will hear stories about how the person you are interacting with handled it.  And you will most certainly interact with someone who will adamantly insist they know the law and what they are telling you is the exact opposite of what your attorney told you.  Or at least you think it is the exact opposite.  Come to think of it, now you are not so sure because you have heard so many different things from so many different people.
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We’ve noticed a pattern recently. It is often that I receive a call from a client or a relative of a client the day someone dies asking what they need to do. A person bereft with emotion, overwhelmed, and sometimes in a state of shock just trying to make sense of everything coming at them at once. My advice is always the same: Take a deep breath and take a moment to grieve. We’ll walk you through what you need to do and when.

My job is to make this process as painless as possible. In a majority of the estates I handle, the person tasked with handling the estate was close to the decedent and impacted by their death. It is completely understandable that this person would be overwhelmed by all of the new information and questions coming at them.
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This post is part of our ongoing series exploring the impact of technology on legal issues.  For an introduction to the series and a collection of the posts in the series, check out this post.

“Thank you.  We have received your automatic payment.”  “Sign up for automatic bill pay to reduce your student loan interest rate.”  “Ensure your payments are never late!  Sign up to automatically pay your bill.”  “Reminder, monthly payment scheduled.”

Those email subject lines are taken directly from my personal email account.  I receive regular inquiries trying to persuade me to switch to automatic payments for all of my monthly bills.  Clearly from some of the subject lines you can see that I do have some bills (the small ones) set for automatic bill pay and flatly refuse to set up others.  Why?  Well in my law school days it was more to prevent an inadvertent overdraft than anything else.  However, now, it is more to prevent a mess in the event of my death.  Horribly morbid.  I know.  But I have a very good reason.
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This post is part of our ongoing series exploring the impact of technology on legal issues.  For an introduction to the series and a collection of the posts in the series, check out this post.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog article about Facebook’s New Legacy Contact, wherein you can appoint someone to manage your account posthumously. When you fail to appoint someone, Facebook’s current policy allows your next of kin to only have partial access to the account in order to either turn it into an online memorial page or to delete it entirely.

It seems that the highest court in Germany has taken issue with this limited access for a legacy contact, having recently determined that a minor’s parents have the right to inherit their daughter’s Facebook account.  The parents of a 15 year old girl who passed away in 2012 sought access to her Facebook account in order to determine if her death was suicide.  Facebook refused, citing their Legacy Contact policy and concern for the privacy of the girl’s other contacts.  The Federal Court of Justice in Germany held that the account was similar to a person’s letters or private diary, both of which would pass on to a person’s heirs under German law.
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If you come to see me asking for just a Will, I will ALWAYS discuss with you whether you need a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney and Living Will.  It is not because I am trying to upsell my services or print more paper and kill trees.  No, it is because I want to make sure you have the documents you need to protect yourself and to simplify things for your loved ones.

A proper estate plan deals with the here and now, the near future, and the distant future.  A proper estate plan is not just what happens when you die.  It has provisions for when your health declines and you can no longer act on your own behalf.  Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the possibility of future illness, incapacitation or death, nor do you want to.  Leave that to me to guide you through the process of determining what you need.

The key to recognizing which documents are necessary is to understand each document and when it becomes active.  Most people know that a Will becomes active on death and deals with the distribution of your assets.  It can also name a guardian for your minor children, and set up trusts to protect those assets. 
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