The death of a loved one is a difficult time. Among the many concerns for the family and friends of the deceased is what is to be done with the deceased’s will, property, and debts. In addition, accessing the assets of the deceased may be critical to the well-being of a surviving spouse or dependent family member, as well as the survival of a business. This process is one of the many that has been further complicated by the current restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across Pennsylvania, courthouses have been closed to the public in order to promote social distancing. These closures have restricted access to the Register of Wills Office in various counties and the ability to file the paperwork necessary to allow the executor(s) named in the will to access and distribute the deceased’s property according to the will, as well as to pay the deceased’s outstanding bills. As the judicial emergency has continued, the Register of Wills for Lancaster County, as well as others across Pennsylvania, has adopted procedures to allow for limited access to begin this estate administration process.
These amended procedures are commonly referred to as “virtual probate.” Through the use of virtual probate, executors are able to secure the court documents necessary to begin the estate administration process to allow executors to perform their duties under the law. The availability and requirements for virtual probate vary between counties. In Lancaster County, the Register of Wills Office has implemented the following requirements:
- The executor(s) must be represented by an attorney.
- The attorney must submit copies of the required documents via email to the Register of Wills Office. These documents include:
- The completed petition to open the estate;
- The will;
- The death certificate;
- Photo identification of the executor(s); and
- Any other documents necessary to open the estate.
- After receipt of the above documents, the attorney can coordinate a video conference with a member of the Register of Wills Office. The executor(s) must participate in the video conference.
- A video conference will be held with the attorney, the executor(s), and the member of the Register of Wills Office on the Lifesize app. Lifesize requires an internet connection on a device with a camera, microphone, and speakers. Please note that Lifesize is not smart phone compatible.
- During the video conference, the executor(s) will be given the oath by the Register’s Office and will sign the petition so that the member of the Register of Wills Office can see the signature(s).
- The signed petition is then mailed to the attorney, who will in turn deliver all required original documents, as well as a check to pay for any fees, to the Register of Wills Office by mail.
- Upon receipt of these documents, if all is in order, the Register of Wills Office will issue the order granting the executor(s) authority to begin the process of administering the estate.
The Lancaster County Register of Wills Office originally advised that virtual probate was only available for emergency estates, but it has relaxed that restriction to allow all estates where the executor(s) are represented by counsel to be opened using the above process. Consulting with an experienced estate administration attorney is a vital first step in gaining the access to the Register of Wills necessary to address the critical needs of the deceased’s spouse, family, and business.
If you have any questions regarding probate or any other estate administration issue, please contact Charles H. Rieck IV at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-509-7275.
**This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or as creating an attorney-client relationship where one does not already exist. This article was published on May 19, 2020. Please be aware that the laws and regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic are being updated rapidly. Please check back or contact us for the most up-to-date information.**