A guide to Pennsylvania wills

Everything you need to know about getting a will in PA

Elissa

By

Elissa Suh

Elissa Suh

Senior Editor & Disability Insurance Expert

Elissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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A will contains instructions about who gets your belongings when you die and lets you choose a guardian for your minor children. A will is the first step to creating a solid estate plan, which often includes other documents like a power of attorney, advance directive, and living trust. You need a will in Pennsylvania to make sure the people you want receive your assets actually do, or else the court will determine who gets your estate.  

→ Live in another state? See our guide to making a will in your state

Making a will in Pennsylvania

A last will and testament is simply a document (a very important one), and creating one doesn't have to be complicated. The best way to make a will depends on your personal circumstances and your estate. The most common ways to make a will are:

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An estate lawyer may charge hundred to thousands of dollars to draft your will, but it may be necessary to seek their services in certain situations, like having many high-value assets to give away or a beneficiary with special needs to provide for.

Otherwise, most people can make a will without a lawyer — a perfectly legal practice in Pennsylvania — by making a will online. An online will service is often cheaper and can provide step-by-step guidance, and some may even offer legal advice for an extra cost.

The cheapest way to make a will is by writing (typing) one up on your own or downloading a free template, but free wills, especially the fill-in-blank will forms, typically only provide the basics and may not be customizable for your circumstances. (For example, a free form may not allow you to create a trust upon your death — a testamentary trust — in the terms of your will.)

Requirements of a Pennsylvania will 

In order for your will to be valid, it must follow all the requirements set by the state, which usually pertain to the person writing the will (the testator) and how the will is constructed and executed. An invalid will won't pass muster in probate and will prove a headache to your loved ones after you've died.

In Pennsylvania, the testator must be at least 18 years old, and of “sound mind.” (§2501) [1]

Witnessing PA wills

Many states require two disinterested people to sign someone’s will, but Pennsylvania law does not require witnesses to a will. The only circumstance when witnesses are required is when the testator is unable to write their own signature, and they need to leave a “mark” or have someone else sign it for them. 

However, witnesses will still need to verify your documents in probate court after you die, so we recommend having two witnesses sign your will, or else your estate representative will be required to track down people who can testify on your estate’s behalf. (§2502)

Executor requirements

You can also use your will to name an executor. Pennsylvania imposes these requirements for an executor:

  • Executors must be at least 18 years old.

  • Corporate executors must be authorized to act as fiduciary in the state 

  • Out-of-state executors may be required to post an executor bond

  • They cannot be charged with manslaughter or homicide (excluding vehicular homicide) in relation to the testator's death

Handwritten PA wills

Pennsylvania law does not prohibit handwritten wills, but if you are writing a will by hand, it may be a good idea to have two witnesses sign it. 

Handwritten wills that don't have witness signatures — known as holographic wills — are not legal in Pennsylvania, but the court may recognize this type of will if it was made in another state where they are legally accepted. 

Do Pennsylvania wills need to be notarized?

Notarizing a will is not required in Pennsylvania — but if you want to make the will self-proved with an affidavit, then it must be notarized. 

After you die, two witnesses must appear in court to help authenticate your will, but you can include a self-proving affidavit to prevent this from happening and speed up the probate process for your loved ones. The affidavit must be signed by two witnesses, notarized by a notary public, and attached to the will. (§3132)

→ Learn how to get a self-proving affidavit

Filing a Pennsylvania will

After the testator dies, the will must be filed at the office of the Register of Wills or the Orphan's Court in the county where the decedent lived. 

Changing a Pennsylvania will 

If you want to make changes to your will, you can do so by adding an amendment called a codicil to it, or writing a new will and revoking destroying the old one. Keep in mind that the codicil must be signed according to procedures described above in order to be valid. 

Dying without a will in Pennsylvania

When there is no will, the court will determine your heirs based on state intestacy law, and they may not be who they wanted. People outside of your immediate family may not receive anything.

A surviving spouse has a right to inherit, and this is how much they would receive under different circumstances (§ 2102):

If the decedent is survived by a spouse and:Surviving spouse's share
No descendants or parentsEverything
Parent(s)The first $30,000, plus 1/2 of remaining intestate estate
Descendants from the surviving spouseThe first $30,000, plus 1/2 of remaining intestate estate
Descendants from someone other than the surviving spouse1/2 of remaining intestate estate

The remaining intestate estate will pass along to your next of kin in the following order.

  • Children

  • Parents

  • Siblings, or their children (nieces/nephews)

  • Grandparents

  • Uncles, aunts, or their children (cousins)

For someone to receive the estate, there must not be anyone left in the category above them. If an inheritor is dead, then their share typically passes to their children by a per stirpes designation. If the decedent has no blood relatives, the estate goes to the state of Pennsylvania. (§2103)

→ Learn more about what happens when you die without a will

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