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What is a short certificate in Pennsylvania?

Under Pennsylvania law, a “short certificate” is a Court document demonstrating that you have the right to administer the estate of someone who has died. Banks, loan companies, realtors and even mobile home parks sometimes request short certificates as part of transferring a loved one’s assets to you. A short certificate is proof that you have been appointed by the Probate Court to administer a deceased individual’s affairs. Short certificates are “short” because they are a one page notice of a longer Court Order that officially designates who can open the estate and has authority to gather and dispose of the deceased person’s assets. In some cases, getting a short certificate can be a huge mistake, so read on if someone is telling you to get one.

How do I get a short certificate?

In Pennsylvania, short certificates are issued by the Register of Wills, which is the county office charged with accepting Wills and issuing the Court Order giving you permission to administer the estate. The Register of Wills and his or her staff for the county where your loved one lived when they died is the only person with the authority to issue this certificate. They do so as part of the “probate” process. You will have to submit a petition for grant of letters, submit a copy of the Will if there is one, and swear an oath to administer the estate according to law.

A short certificate comes with a seal from the County, and it also acts as an order to all third parties to turn over assets. In other words, anyone who refuses to allow you to transfer a bank account to an estate account, or who refuses to return a car, lawnmower, personal item or something else of value belonging to the estate is now legally at risk of being held in contempt of Court. The short certificate grants you, the executor or administrator, enormous power over the assets and debts of your loved one. Short certificates also signify that you have power to bring a civil action on behalf of your deceased loved one, including a wrongful death action.

Are there any risks to getting a short certificate?

Short certificates demonstrate that you have opened an estate for an individual who has died–and opening an estate comes with both benefits and obligations. Often, a bank or third party creditor will tell a potential executor they should go down to the courthouse and sign up for one without any concern about the obligations such a certificate places on the executor. Once you swear in to probate an estate, you are obligated to administer the estate according to law, to ensure that the law is followed to the letter, and that debts are paid in the appropriate order. This usually requires hiring an attorney, and sometimes results in out-of-pocket costs for the executor. Whether to open probate and get a short certificate is a decision you should enter after understanding all of the potential risks and costs for doing so.

In addition, while many entities “require” short certificates, they are not always allowed to do so. The law–not a bank or notary–determines when a short certificate is required and when it is not. Consulting with an estate administration attorney can save you cost and headache in the estate process.

Conclusion: Getting a short certificate is an important decision

If you have been advised to get a short certificate in Pennsylvania, or if you want to open probate for your own reasons, contact an experienced estate administration attorney at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your options. We can help you assess whether to open probate, where you’re required to open probate, and whether there are other ways to administer your loved one’s estate. Call today for a free estate consultation.