What happens if you own property but do not have a will?

Q: My aunt, a widow, is ill and does not have a will. She has three adult children from whom she is estranged. She owns property and has life insurance but feels that is enough. We are trying to avoid a family catastrophe. (Belle Vernon, PA)

A: If she has any property in her name only, (not held jointly or in trust for with others) whether it is real property or personal property, and she has no will in place, it will pass in accordance with the PA intestate succession statute. This statute determines who inherits from a deceased person if he or she has no will. In your aunt’s case, her children will inherit equally from her estate. Her life insurance policy is likely to have a listed beneficiary, but I would tell her to confirm.

I have a life estate but don’t know what it means

Q; I was left a to life estate in my mom’s will.  My sister is executor of mom’s will and is telling me she inherits mom’s home and her real property. I was left a life estate but don’t know exactly what that means. What are my rights in PA? With life estate can my sister sell the property with me having a life estate? Or, does she have to buy me out? She is complaining about my cats and meddling in my life.

A: I cannot provide exact advice without looking at the estate papers and the deeds. Normally, a life estate permits you to live in the home until you move or die. Normally, a life estate does not convey any ownership to the person who has the life estate. Generally, ownership passes to a remainder person once the person with the life estate dies or vacates the property. It is possible that the life estate just gives you the right to live there, but does not convey ownership to you. Again, these documents should be looked at. I would consult with an estate attorney in your area who can look at the documents.