PA Executor Fees & Solving the Mystery of How to Calculate Them

PA Executor Fees & Solving the Mystery of How to Calculate Them

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The issue of calculating PA Executor Fees (which apply to an executor, executrix, administrator or personal representative) in estate cases is interesting because there is in fact no hard and fast rule about how such fees are to be calculated. Therefore no sure way to know what you can expect to see in the accounting if you are a beneficiary.

While executors’ fees are set by statute in many states, the “PEF” Code (the Pennsylvania Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code) provides only that a personal representative’s compensation shall be “reasonable and just” – based upon the specifics of each estate – and that it “may” be calculated on a graduated percentage. (20 Pa.C.S. §3537) The executor then has several options available, including charging (i) a flat fee or (ii) an hourly fee.

Though a “reasonable and just” standard may appear to be a very loose, wishy-washy standard, anyone acting as a PA executor or administrator should be aware that the commission will ultimately be subject to review on many levels: first and foremost, by the Orphan’s Court, to determine the reasonableness of the fee based upon the size of the estate, particularly if a beneficiary has objected to the accounting; second, by the Attorney General’s office, to review the fees’ effect upon the pay out of a charitable gift if a charity is a beneficiary of the estate; and third, by the Department of Revenue, to ensure against fraudulent deductions for fees claimed on the Inheritance Tax Return.

To guard against the prospect of an unfavorable audit, the Pennsylvania personal representative should take careful note of the percentage guidelines established by the court in Johnson Estate, 4 Fid.Rep.2d 6,8 (1983). In actuality, although the schedule established in Johnson was only included as an attachment to the judge’s written opinion, it has served as the unofficial guideline for gauging executor commissions and attorney fees ever since, with countless other judges adopting it as their own benchmark for review of accountings in subsequent cases.

Typically, if the ultimate PA executor commission is not more than what is provided on the Johnson schedule (below), and is calculated based upon standards of financial reason and fairness, it is likely that it will likely be met with approval all around.

      Per Col.Per Total
Executor or$200,000.01to1,000,000.003%24,000.0033,000.00
1%Joint Accounts1%P.O.D. Bonds1%Trust Funds
3%Real Estate Converted
with Aid of Broker
5%Real Estate:
1%Real Estate:
Specific Devise

Reasonableness, however, always reigns: While the percentage method appeals to judges of the Orphans’ Court, keep in mind the Pennsylvania Superior Court has criticized the practice in their own opinions in Sonovick Estate, 373 Pa. Super 396 (1988), and Preston Estate, 560 A.2d 160 (1989).

A PA Executor should also consider that money received as compensation for any fiduciary duties is taxable for federal income tax purposes and usually for state income tax purposes as well. Accordingly, the executor may want to elect NOT take a commission after all as he or she may receive more by just receiving his or her distributive share of the estate.

For purposes of this article, I have used the titles “executor”, “executrix”, “administrator” or “personal representative” interchangeably. All refer to the person or entity that is in charge of administering a decedent’s estate. In fact, an executor or executrix is a party that is appointed by a Will; an administrator is a party that is not appointed by Will, but is approved by the Court; and a personal representative can be either a party named in a Will or appointed by the Court.

NOTE: Special thanks to Elizabeth Ketterson for helping to prepare this article.

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