The loss of a loved one is a very difficult time that may require us to make many decisions that some of us are unprepared to make. Information is the key to those decisions, but we are often not able to obtain the information needed until certain legal requirements are met. And we are often not sure what to do first.

One of the first steps is to have someone appointed as the Personal Representative of the Estate by the Register of Wills in the County where the Decedent lived. This can be easily accomplished if the Decedent left a Will appointing someone as the Executor (Personal Representative), but it may be complicated if no Will can be found.

A thorough search of the Decedent’s home and personal belongings in order to locate a Will and burial instructions should be completed as soon after the death as possible. This may include searching the home or apartment of the decedent if they lived alone or consulting with other family members to obtain any pertinent information that might assist in this search.

The Decedent may have had a safe deposit box at a local bank. You may be able to contact the bank and perform a “Will search”. If the Decedent had an attorney, you may want to consult with that person, as the attorney may be in possession of the original document. Keep in mind that you are not required to hire this attorney as the attorney for the Estate, regardless of what the Will may say.

Of course, burial arrangements must be made by appropriate family members. It is usually not necessary to make any advance payments to a funeral director, as they are normally willing to bill the Estate for payment after probate. On the other hand, cemeteries frequently require an advance payment prior to burial. The funeral director sometimes will guarantee payment and add it to the funeral bill. If you are required to advance any payments relating to the funeral director or cemetery, you will be reimbursed by the Estate after the burial. The funeral director will generally order death certificates for the family, inform social security of the Decedent’s death, and, where applicable, file the necessary forms to obtain veterans’ benefits.

Arrangements should be made for the care of any family pets, which is often a matter of considerable importance to many decedents. In some instances, where there is a Will, the Decedent may have set aside funds for the care of a pet. If the Decedent has not made arrangements for pets, there are a number of shelters and rescue leagues located throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that can help.

If the family cannot locate a Will, then they must decide who would be the most likely family member to qualify to be appointed by the Register of Wills to act as the Personal Representative. Families are urged to put aside any differences and find a mutually agreeable individual to act as Personal Representative(s). When deciding who will serve as the Personal Representative, it is important to remember that the average estate administration takes more than one year to complete, and overseeing this process may involve a significant time commitment. Retaining an attorney will greatly reduce the responsibilities of the Personal Representative. However, the Estate administration process will most likely still exceed one year to complete.

If family members cannot agree on a Personal Representative (or co-representatives), then the Register of Wills in the County in which the Decedent lived will decide. At the very least, this process will delay the administration process for weeks or even months. Under the appropriate circumstances, where a delay in the appointment of the Personal Representative will place some of the Decedent’s assets at risk, the Register of Wills, upon application, is authorized to appoint a temporary Personal Representative (usually for 30 days) on an emergency basis.

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