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Why It Is Important to Make a Will Before You Potentially Suffer a Disabling Injury

It is never too soon to think about making an estate plan. Even if you are relatively young and healthy now, a sudden accident may leave you incapacitated and unable to make critical legal decisions for yourself going forward. By making an estate plan now, you can make sure your family understands and honors your wishes.

Now you may think that estate planning is unnecessary. After all, doesn’t Pennsylvania law decide what will happen to your property if you die without a will? Yes, there are such provisions–known as intestacy laws–on the books. But these laws do not always prevent disputes from arising between family members. That is why you should make every effort to avoid such a situation when possible.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rejects Mother’s Attempt to Exclude Father from Son’s Estate

A recent case from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Estate of Small v. Small, illustrates what can happen when someone is incapacitated and failed to make an estate plan. This tragic case involves a man who was rendered a paraplegic after being shot at the age of 18. The man lived until the age of 37. He did not have a spouse or any children. Nor did he have a will.

Under Pennsylvania law, the man’s intestate estate passed to his parents in equal shares. The estate’s main asset was a $90,000 judgment from a wrongful death lawsuit. The deceased man’s mother, who also served as administrator of his estate, then moved to exclude the father from taking his half under the law.

The mother relied on a “forfeiture” provision in Pennsylvania probate law. Basically, there is a rule that states a parent is not entitled to inherit from the estate of a “minor or dependent child” if they “failed to perform the duty to support” said child in the year preceding the child’s death.

The question the Supreme Court had to decide was what constituted a “dependent” child for purposes of this forfeiture rule. Although the deceased man was a paraplegic, he was self-sufficient and “could perform all of life’s ordinary activities except walking,” according to the Supreme Court’s opinion. Critically, the man had not been ruled legally incapacitated or incapable of managing his affairs. In other words, he was not under any form of legal guardianship.

Given all this, the Supreme Court said the deceased could not be properly classified as a “dependent child.” That meant the father had no legal duty to provide care for his adult child even after he was shot and became disabled. As such, the father was entitled to legally inherit half of the son’s estate.

Contact Anderson Elder Law Today If You Want to Make a Pennsylvania Estate Plan

A critical lesson from this case is that intestacy law generally does not care about the type of relationship a deceased individual had with a potential heir. Let’s say you have three siblings. If you die without a will, and those siblings are your next-of-kin, they will each inherit an equal share of your estate. It does not matter if you were closer to one sibling than the other two. If your goal is to leave most–or even all–of your estate to one sibling, then you need to make a will stating as much.

Ideally, you should have a comprehensive estate plan that addresses not just your will, but also names agents to act for you should you become incapacitated or in need of a guardian. If you need advice or assistance from a Pennsylvania Certified Elder Law Attorney, contact Anderson Elder Law today to schedule an initial consultation.