Register of Wills FAQ

Does the Register of Wills have my will on file?

In Pennsylvania, living persons do NOT have wills 'registered' and stored by the county Register of Wills. Original wills are usually kept secure by the attorney who prepared the will, in the vault of a trust department, or in a safe deposit box belonging to the testator (person who wrote the will) or with the testator’s other important papers.

If named in a will, can I simply assume my responsibilities to carry out the terms of that will?

Before any individual or institution is legally eligible to take possession of the assets of an estate, they must have authorization by the Court to do so. This authority is granted by the Register of Wills in a document called Letters Testamentary after the will has been probated (or proven to be authentic).

If a short certificate is needed to liquidate or receive certain assets of a decedent, can I purchase one from the Register's office?

Once an individual or institution has court authorization via Letters to take possession of any assets, a short certificate may be required before those assets can be released. As many short certificates as necessary may be purchased from the Register's Office after the formal opening of an estate or probate of will. Under no other circumstances as defined by law will the Cumberland County Register of Wills issue a short certificate.

What documents and persons are required to probate a will?

A completed petition for probate and grant of letters (available online or in the Register's office)

An original will, codicil, and/or any other related documents giving direction as to how property should be disposed upon death

A death certificate

Appearance of executor(s) with valid photo ID*

Witnesses to will (not necessary if will is self-proven) with valid photo ID*

A certified English translation if will is written in a foreign language

A check or cash to cover probate fees (based on value of estate)

Can I probate in any courthouse of my convenience?

Wills are generally accepted for probate only in the county where the decedent was legally domiciled at the time of death.

Can the Register of Wills guide me through estate administration or must I seek legal counsel?

While legal counsel is not required, estate administration is conducted more effectively with the assistance of legal counsel. While the Clerks in the Register's office process various estate-related documents they are not familiar with assets and obligations of the estate which is being administered, therefore cannot advise you how to proceed or provide legal advice.

It is the duty and obligation of the personal representative (executor or administrator) to protect estate assets. It may be necessary to review many documents (insurance policies, bills, motor vehicle titles, employee benefit information, business agreements, recent income tax returns, medical or disability insurances, bonds, stocks, and numerous other sources).

What happens to the estate if the decedent died intestate (leaving no will)?

Where there is no will, an administrator is appointed by the court to handle the estate. Individuals or institutions entitled to administer an estate are established by law. This authority is granted by the Register of Wills in a document called Letters of Administration. The decedent's estate is then distributed according to a formula which is also set forth by law. These "intestacy" laws name the beneficiaries and the amount to which they are entitled. By leaving no will, the estate may be inherited and distributed contrary to the Decedent’s wishes.

Can any distribution be made without probate and grant of letters or a judicial decision by the Orphans’ Court?

Yes. Certain assets transfer by operation of law or other methods short of probate. Section 3101 of the Probate, Estates, and Fiduciaries Code certain amounts can be paid to certainly family members without probating. Employers can pay wages, salary or employee benefits due to the deceased in the amount not exceeding $5,000. Life insurance companies may release certain monies under $11,000 to named family members rather than to the estate. Various health care institutions can pay out patient accounts not exceeding $10,000. Banks and savings institutions can release up to $10,000 to family members with an original death certificate and receipted funeral bill. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has forms to transfer vehicles without probate as well. This is not an exhausted list of transfers that can be made without probate.

*Valid Photo ID: A government issued identification card with a photo that reflects the likeness of the person. Further, the ID must not be expired. If for any reason the proposed personal representative’s name is different than what is listed in the will (i.e., valid name change after the will), documentation verifying the change will also be required.

NOTICE: This information has been made available to you as a public service by the Cumberland County Register of Wills' office and should NOT be taken as legal advice. While the Register of Wills is a licensed attorney, she cannot give you legal advice and no client/attorney relationship is formed by providing this information. Responses are general and individual facts in a specific case may alter routine procedures or involve other laws not referred to herein.