If there’s no will, who’s the executor of a Pennsylvania Estate?

You’re leaving the nursing home, sad that your mom has recently died, but also upset because you know that your mom never got around to writing a will. It was a source of contention between you and her for years, but it’s finally come home to roost, and you have to deal with your mom’s estate. When a person dies without creating a will, this is called “intestacy.”

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has stepped in to provide an orchestrated sequence of events to ensure that an intestate estate is administered correctly and promptly. This starts with designating who will be named as the administrator of the estate.

That might seem odd because you’ve only ever heard of a person being an “executor,” but there are about six different titles that refer to the personal representative of an estate. An executor is a person who is nominated under a will to administer the estate. An “administrator” is a person who is appointed, sometimes by an executor or by the Commonwealth statutes, to administer an estate.

Who becomes the Administrator?

If there is no Will, then the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania tell you who is permitted to apply to be the administrator of the estate.

Pennsylvania gives preference in order of relationship to the decedent.

  • Surviving spouse or registered domestic partner;
  • Adult children;
  • Decedent’s parents;
  • Brothers and sisters;
  • Nieces, nephews, and their cousins;
  • Principal creditors of the decedent;
  • Guardianship support agency that was serving as Guardian of an incapacitated person who dies while under the agency’s administration

It’s important to note that there are exceptions to each of these categories of relatives. A non-exhaustive list of exemptions includes: if the surviving spouse and the decedent were going through a divorce, the survivor might not be considered qualified to be appointed; adult children that are judged to be unfit may not be selected, or a child who is under the age of 18 cannot be appointed.

Challenges of the Appointment

Although the law provides a group hierarchy based on the relationship to the decedent, the law does not express any opinion on who within that group of people is the most qualified. If a parent dies without a surviving spouse and there are four adult children, all four children are entitled – and expected – to be the joint administrators of the parent’s estate.

This can create complications. When there is more than one person who is given the responsibility, it’s almost like no one has the responsibility. Unless there is a person who delegates the different tasks required to administer an estate, an estate might remain open for quite some time. Since each person within that group is equally considered qualified to be the administrator, no single person is given authority over another person. There is no “chief administrator” and the “sub-administrators.” Each person is viewed as equal in the eyes of the law.

As you can imagine, this is a recipe for infighting. Not only is there a funeral service to plan, but there is also property to sell, bills to pay, documents to file, and several levels of government agencies to deal with. Who does what? Who has what document that needs to be where? In what order can each of these tasks be accomplished?

It is common for people to disagree, especially when they’re in an emotionally charged state. It is often recommended for the group to decide amongst themselves who is the most qualified to take on the role of the administrator. Then those who decide they do not want to accept the role of an administrator will need to sign a renunciation.