When There is No Will, How is the Administrator of an Estate Chosen?

When a person dies without leaving a will, this is referred to as dying intestate. Under this circumstance, the person who is appointed to administer the estate is referred to as an administrator, in contrast to an executor who is appointed to administer the estate of someone who died with a will. In an intestate estate, the official document which are issued by the Register of Wills to the Administrator is called Letters of Administration. The Register of Wills determines who will be granted Letters of Administration primarily on the order of preference stated in the Pennsylvania Probate & Fiduciary Code (“Probate Code”) and of his examination of the petition submitted to him by the party or parties seeking Letters.

Section 3155 of the Probate Code sets forth the order in which parties with an interest in an intestate estate are preferred for appointment. The right to administer the estate is based upon the size of the interest of the applicant and not upon the closeness of his relationship to the decedent. Therefore, if an interest in the estate has been forfeited for any reason, the right to serve as administrator is also lost. Under Section 3155, the order of preference is: 
(1) Surviving spouse. Facts which would disqualify a surviving spouse include a pending divorce action if there is grounds for divorce or the signed release of the right to be appointed such as might be contained in a prenuptial agreement. 
(2) Other persons who are entitled to inherit from the decedent under the intestate laws. First in line would be children or other issue (lineal descendants) if any. If there are no issue, then parents of the decedent. If there are no parents living, then brothers or sisters of the decedent or their issue (nieces and nephews and their children). The statutory list of relatives goes on from there. 
(3) Principal creditors of the decedent at the time of his death. 
(4) Other fit persons. 
(5) A guardianship support agency serving as Guardian of an incapacitated person who dies during its administration.

Certain people are specifically excluded as a candidate to be the Administrator. Those people include: (A) a person under 18 years of age; (B) a corporation; and (C) a person found to be unfit by the Register of Wills. The Register of Wills has discretion in determining whether a party is fit to serve and his decision will generally only be overturned if the court has determined the Register has abused his discretion. 
Where two or more people fall within the same class of people designated by the Code, each of them have the right to be appointed provided they are deemed fit. In such a case, the Register would likely appoint them as co-administrators.

As with most situations, there are always circumstances which can create exceptions and results which are less than obvious at first. Call one of our experienced estate and probate attorneys to discuss your estate administration questions at 610-323-7464.