Spousal Elective Share Disputes: Understanding Pennsylvania’s Statutory Protections

In the realm of estate planning and probate law, one area that often leads to disputes and legal challenges is the spousal elective share. In Pennsylvania, statutes are in place to protect the rights of surviving spouses when they believe they have been inadequately provided for in their partner’s estate plan. Understanding these laws is crucial for both spouses and estate planners to navigate potential disputes effectively. Let’s delve into the essential aspects of Pennsylvania’s spousal elective share provisions.

What Is the Spousal Elective Share?

The spousal elective share refers to the legal right of a surviving spouse to claim a portion of their deceased spouse’s estate, regardless of what is stated in the deceased spouse’s will or trust. The purpose of this provision is to prevent a spouse from disinheriting their partner entirely and ensure that the surviving spouse is adequately provided for after their spouse’s death.

Calculation of the Elective Share

In Pennsylvania, the elective share amount is determined based on the length of the marriage and the value of the deceased spouse’s probate estate and certain non-probate assets. Generally, the surviving spouse is entitled to one-third of the decedent’s net probate estate if there are surviving descendants or one-half if there are no surviving descendants but surviving parents or siblings. Certain assets, such as jointly owned property, life insurance proceeds, and retirement accounts with designated beneficiaries, may be excluded from the calculation.

Exceptions and Limitations

While Pennsylvania law provides a statutory right to the spousal elective share, there are exceptions and limitations to consider. For instance, if the surviving spouse entered into a valid prenuptial or postnuptial agreement waiving their right to the elective share, they may not be entitled to claim it. Additionally, assets held in certain types of trusts or transferred to beneficiaries outside of probate may not be subject to the elective share.

Initiating a Spousal Elective Share Claim

To exercise their right to the elective share, the surviving spouse must file a formal claim with the Orphans’ Court within a specified timeframe, typically within six months of the decedent’s death or within six months of the grant of letters testamentary or letters of administration. Failure to assert the elective share in a timely manner may result in forfeiture of the right to claim it.

Resolution of Disputes

Disputes over the spousal elective share often arise during the probate administration process, leading to contested proceedings in the Orphans’ Court. These disputes may involve issues such as the valuation of assets, the validity of estate planning documents, or the interpretation of prenuptial agreements. Resolving such disputes requires careful legal analysis and negotiation to reach a fair and equitable outcome for all parties involved.


Understanding Pennsylvania’s spousal elective share laws is essential for both spouses and estate planners to navigate potential disputes effectively. Whether you’re a surviving spouse seeking to assert your rights or an estate planner advising clients on estate planning strategies, it’s crucial to be aware of the statutory protections in place and the procedures for initiating and resolving spousal elective share claims. Consultation with an experienced probate attorney can provide invaluable guidance and assistance in safeguarding marital rights and preserving family harmony amidst estate disputes.