Q. Can I write my own will or should I hire an attorney?

A. Yes, you can write your own Will. There are countless computer programs and books available that will provide a seemingly easy way to put a Will together. But you also take the very real chance that your will does not comply with Pennsylvania law. Also, we can ask you questions and offer you suggestions that you may not find covered in the do-it-yourself package. A lawyer with expertise on Wills and Trusts can help make sure your wishes are followed after your death. Yes, you can write your own… at the risk of your loved ones.


Q. What if I die without a Will?

A. If you die without a Will you are “Intestate” and your assets are distributed in accordance with rules set up by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A common assumption is that if you die without a Will your assets may end up going to the state. This is possible, but only if you have no living relatives.

People also assume that if they die without a Will that all of their assets will pass automatically to their surviving spouse. This is not necessarily true. The surviving spouse receives everything only if the Intestate deceased had no surviving family (children, grandchildren, etc.) or parents.


Q. What is a codicil?

A. A codicil is an addition to a Will that has been executed. A codicil may be as simple as changing or adding a name, or it can be as complex as rewriting or adding sections to your existing will. A codicil becomes part of your will and will be read together with your Will to figure out what you want to be done with your assets at your death.


Q. What is probate?

A. Probate is the process of filing the Will with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and having the state recognize the executor of your estate. If you die without a Will, probate will have the state recognize an administrator to handle your estate. Probate for people residing in Pennsylvania at the time of their death takes place with the Register of Wills office in the county where the person had their last principal residence.

All wills must be confirmed by two witnesses before it is admitted into probate. For this reason, it is best to have witness signatures at the time your will is written.


Q. Should my Will create a Trust?

A. A trust is an arrangement where one person, who is called the Grantor, gives some property, such as cash or real estate, to another person, who is referred to as a Trustee, to be held for a third person, who is a beneficiary. A trust can be very simple or very complex. For example, a trust can allow your heir to access the gift you leave them but protect the gift from their spouses, creditors and from future death taxes.


Q. Why do I need a Power of Attorney?

A. Having a designated Power of Attorney allows someone you choose to handle your money, personal, and financial affairs when you or the person you love can’t. A Power of Attorney can be used if someone is sick, hospitalized, or for any reason just unable to handle their own financial affairs.


Q. What are some of the things a person can do with a Power of Attorney?

A. A person with Power of Attorney can collect money, pay bills, borrow money and take control of the contents of a safe deposit box. They can also write and endorse checks and handle deposits and withdrawals from bank accounts. A Power of Attorney can also sell or buy real estate, file tax returns and handle your legal matters.


Q. What if you don’t do a Power of Attorney- what kinds of things can happen?

A. A person who is incompetent could waste money by running up their bills or spending thousands of dollars on useless items. They could give their property away to people who should not be getting it. If you don’t have a Power of Attorney and a situation arises where you need to handle a loved one’s matters, you will most likely end up in court seeking a guardianship, a process that is much more cumbersome and expensive than obtaining most powers of attorney.


Q. Can I write a Power of Attorney myself?

A. Yes, but be aware that many of the forms you may find on the internet are not accepted in the Pennsylvania courts. Also by not having an attorney review the Power of Attorney before it is signed, you may not achieve the results you are looking for. It may be ineffective and unenforceable.


Q. What is a Medical Power of Attorney and what does it do?

A. It allows another party to authorize medical and surgical procedures on your behalf. It could also authorize your admission to a medical facility or nursing home.


Q. If I don’t have a Medical Power of Attorney, what can happen?

A. If you are unable to make appropriate decisions regarding your medical care or hospital or nursing home admission, your family may have to do it for you. Worse, if your family can not agree, the court may appoint a guardian to make the decision.


Q. Why do I need a Living Will?

A. A living will allows you to prepare for a day when you might be facing a very serious illness with little or no prospect of recovering. A living will allows you to determine specifically what measures a doctor or hospital can use to keep you alive. If you do not have one, the doctor and hospital will have no instructions from you as to what measures you wish for them to take. The decision will rest on your family, assuming they can agree, and if they can’t agree, the court may make the decisions for you.


Q. Can plans for the care of a special needs person be included in my will so they will still qualify for their government programs?

A. Yes, if it is prepared properly. This is a complex area of the law and your Will must be precise. If done properly, a Special Needs Trust can be created to care for a person with special needs while keeping them entitled to government aid. This is certainly an area where an attorney at Steidl and Steinberg can offer valuable assistance in order to make sure your loved one with special needs is properly cared for when you die.


Q. What happens to my debt?

A. When a person dies, the property is first used to pay for probate and funeral expenses, then to pay debts. Generally, all debts must first be paid before assets are distributed. Your outstanding credit card balances, for instance, will be paid before gifts are distributed to your heirs.

A major exception to this rule is for secured debts, such as home loans or auto loans. In the case of secured debts, property can be distributed with its debt. You can leave a car to someone, but it will be that person’s obligation to pay off the loan.

What happens if you owe more than you own? In general, people cannot inherit another person’s debts. If there is not enough cash to pay your debts, then all property will be sold to pay the debts, and no one will inherit anything. For example, say that you owe $12,000 in credit card debt but only have cash and property worth $10,000. In that case, the property will be sold by the court, and only $10,000 will be paid to the credit card company.

What if someone owes you money? This money would usually be collected and added to your overall estate. However, you can always choose to forgive the debt in your will.


Q. Should I put my funeral plans in my Will?

A. You can, but you should be aware that your family may not look at the Will or contact your estate planning attorney until after your funeral. If you include your funeral arrangements in your Will, make your plans known to the people who will be contacted at your death.