• Payments to Family and Funeral Directors
  • November 6, 2008 | Author: John B. Whalen
  • Law Firm: Whalen, John B., Jr. - Wayne Office
  • There are alternatives for settling small estates instead of the traditional Probate process.

    • The profession of law, in general, and the focus of Estate Law, in particular, is a constant balancing act between science and art. Our true hallmark as professionals is when our knowledge of the intricacies of the science is solid enough to lend itself easily to the art of the various situations with which we are presented.
    • Most of the time, our estates do - and rightfully should - follow the traditional, time-tested route of the Probate and Estate Administration process.  Although this line of thinking is in no way wrong, it may be short sighted in certain circumstances where the formal procedures may be neither desired nor required.
    • The essence of our dilemma lies in being able to readily identify and handle those situations where a streamlined approach would be better suited.  Being creatures of habit, however, this is easier said than done.

    The Statute

    • The Pennsylvania statute, 20 Pa.C.S.A.  § 3101, Payments to Family and Funeral Directors (Section 3101), contains a few alternatives for use in the settlement of small estates.  Simply stated, it allows for the payment of a decedent's assets in certain situations with no court documents or no court supervision.  However, despite Section 3101's simplicity, a stand-off can, and often does, exist between the statute's theoretical ease and the world's practical complexity.
    • On the one hand, the holder of a decedent's assets does require that certain items (i.e., Short Certificate, Letters Testamentary, Small Estate Decree, etc.) be provided for release of the assets.  As they have the duties to both safeguard the decedent's assets and release them only to the proper payee, they are certainly allowed to ensure that the one (payment of the assets) will work to cancel out the other (possible future liability).  In light of these responsibilities, any organization which has custody of a decedent's assets (i.e., banks, brokerage firms, transfer agents, etc.) is often hesitant to release the decedent's assets without any court documents or to anyone other than the estate's personal representative.
    • On the other hand, Section 3101 does not require that any paperwork be provided to the holder of a decedent’s assets.  Reluctance may appear from those unfamiliar with this statute insofar as they don't understand what to do when they are not provided with their traditionally required items.  As a practical matter, providing the holder of the asset with a copy of Section 3101 could be helpful, because it shows them that they can properly pay the asset and be released from liability.
    • Section 3101 contains five subsections.  Each subsection handles a particular situation where a decedent's assets may be paid in the absence of any court documents.  Each subsection contains differences.
    • They each address different types of assets that can be paid, different organizations by whom they can be paid, different people to whom they can be paid, and different requirements for them to be paid.  More importantly, each subsection contains similarities.
    • The similarities lay in the fact that they each share five parallel traits which virtually overshadow their differences.  Accordingly, as Section 3101 addresses five scenarios, all of which contain strikingly similar attributes, it may be appropriate to view these parallel characteristics as the five traits.  Further, as the five scenarios, in essence, are exclusions to the dictates of its sister statute, Section 3102, and can be exclusions from the probate process itself independent of Section 3102, it may be convenient to refer to these five scenarios as the five exclusions.  With an understanding of the five traits and the five exclusions, the implementation of any of Section 3101's situations can occur with relative ease.

    The Five Traits

    • Section 3101's five scenarios share similarities which virtually overshadow their differences, and they are referred to herein as the five traits.  These traits are the asset of the payment, the amount of the payment, the recipient of the payment, the protection of the payor of the payment, and the liability of the recipient of the payment.
    • The first trait (of the five traits of Section 3101) describes the asset that can be paid.  These assets include wages, salary, and employee benefits; deposit accounts; patient care accounts; insurance and annuities; and unclaimed property.
    • The second trait (of the five traits of Section 3101) describes the amount up to which an asset can be paid.  These various dollar amounts include the sums of $5,000.00 (of wages, salary, and employee benefits); $3,500.00 (of deposit accounts); $3,500.00 and an additional $500.00, for a $4,000.00 total (of patient care accounts); $11,000.00 (of insurance or annuity proceeds); and $11,000.00 (of unclaimed property).
    • The third trait (of the five traits of Section 3101) describes the recipient to whom the asset can be paid.  These recipients include the decedent's spouse, children, parents, and siblings, in that order of preference (referred to herein as the family hierarchy), and, in one case, a funeral director.  With the lone exception of a funeral director under Section 3010(c), it should be noted that only family members may take advantage of the five exclusions.  The wording of the statute implies that the exclusions are unavailable to agents, guardians, or other fiduciaries.
    • The fourth trait (of the five traits of Section 3101) describes the protection accorded to the payor of the asset.  This protection releases the payor to the same extent as if the payment was made to a duly appointed personal representative, and covers employers, banks, care facilities, insurance companies, and the State Treasurer.
    • The fifth trait (of the five traits of Section 3101) describes the liability attached to the payee of the asset.  This liability follows any person to whom payment is made (i.e., the family hierarchy and the funeral director), and holds the recipient answerable to anyone prejudiced by an improper distribution.

    The Five Exclusions

    • Section 3101's five scenarios are, in essence, exceptions to the dictates of its sister statute, Section 3102, as well as the probate process itself, and they are referred to herein as the five exclusions.  These exclusions speak to employers, banking houses, patient facilities, insurance companies, and the State Treasurer.
    • The first exclusion (of the five exclusions of Section 3101) speaks to employers.  An employer is permitted to pay the decedent's wages, salary, or other benefits in an amount up to $5,000.00 to the family hierarchy.  Upon payment, the employer is released and the recipient is liable.  There are no further requirements for payment under the first exclusion, Section 3101(a).
    • The second exclusion (of the five exclusions of Section 3101) speaks to banking houses.  A banking house (i.e., bank, savings association, savings and loan association, credit union or other savings association) is permitted to pay the decedent's deposit account in an amount up to $3,500.00 to the family hierarchy.  Upon payment, the banking house is released and the recipient is liable.  There is a further requirement for payment under the second exclusion, Section 3101(b).  The recipient of the item must provide written evidence that the funeral services have been paid (either by a receipt or an affidavit from the funeral home).  Seemingly, not included in the definition of banking house is whether a brokerage firm would fall within the statute's grip of other savings association.  Presumably, a brokerage account with only a money market account would be included, but a brokerage account containing any other type of investment (i.e., stocks, bonds, and mutual funds) would not be included.
    • The third exclusion (of the five exclusions of Section 3101) speaks to patient facilities, and is a two-step process.  A patient facility is permitted to pay the decedent's patient care account in an amount up to $3,500.00 to a funeral home for the decedent's burial expenses.  It is then permitted to pay the balance of the account in an amount up to another $500 to the family hierarchy.  The total payment by the patient facility can be in an amount up to $4,000.00.  Upon payment, the patient facility is released and the recipient is liable.  There is a further requirement for payment under the third exclusion, Section 3101(c).  The decedent must have been a qualified recipient of medical assistance from the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare.  Although the wording of the statute implies that this exclusion is unavailable to private-pay patient care accounts, perchance it may not be so restricted in practice.
    • The fourth exclusion (of the five exclusions of Section 3101) speaks to insurance companies.  An insurance company is permitted to pay life, endowment, accident, or health insurance proceeds or annuity proceeds, otherwise payable to the decedent's estate, in an amount up to $11,000.00 to the family hierarchy.  Upon payment, the insurance company is released and the recipient is liable.  There are two further requirements for payment under the fourth exclusion, Section 3101(d).  The insurance company must wait sixty (60) days before making payment of the proceeds, and, at the time that the insurance company makes payment of the proceeds, the insurance company must not have received written claim for those proceeds by the decedent's personal representative.  Presumably, if the insurance company has received written claim for the proceeds by the personal representative, they are duty bound to release those proceeds to the personal representative, and the matter should be investigated further.
    • The fifth exclusion (of the five exclusions of Section 3101), and the newest addition to Section 3101, speaks to the State Treasurer.  The State Treasurer is permitted to pay the decedent's unclaimed or abandoned property in an amount of up to $11,000.00 to the family hierarchy.  Upon payment, the State Treasurer is released and the recipient is liable.  There are further requirements for payment under the fifth exclusion, Section 3101(e).  The recipient must provide a death certificate, a sworn affidavit containing various averments about the status of a personal representative, and any other information determined by the State Treasurer to be necessary in order to distribute property or pay funds under this section to the proper person.

    The Conclusion

    • A review of Section 3101 shows the five traits permeate its allowable payments.  These traits are asset, amount, recipient, protection, and liability.  Keeping these traits in mind, Section 3101 becomes easier to conceptualize.
    • A review of Section 3101 shows that the five exclusions speak to the various entities that may allow you to circumvent a small estate petition, as well as the probate process.  These exclusions speak to employers, banking houses, patient facilities, insurance companies, and the State Treasurer.
    • Keeping these exclusions in mind, Section 3101 becomes easier to utilize.  Being creatures of habit, perhaps, this may now be easier done than said.