How Probate Works

Though probate is commonly associated with administering someone’s estate if there is no will or executor, it is the term used to cover the general act of distributing an estate regardless of its state. Having a will or executor makes the probate process easier in the long run. If the decedent did not write up a will or name an executor, the probate court must assign one to the estate according to the intestate laws. Intestate laws determine who is eligible to receive estate belongings and defines heirs and next-of-kin. These laws differ from state to state.

Once a person dies, someone will need to file a petition to prove that the will is valid. After the probate court approves the will, they will officially name an executor or administrator (if the decedent did not name an executor). The executor will send notices to everyone involved in the will—beneficiaries or relatives named by intestate laws slated to receive a portion of the estate, and creditors, if applicable. If there is a will and interested parties agree to it, all probate needs to do is review documents and sign paperwork.

The executor will then take inventory of the estate, considering any stocks or bonds the decedent had. They will share this information with the heirs of the will to prove that the estate has been distributed fairly. Finally, the executor will distribute the contents of the estate. Once distributed, the court will pay the executor their fee, and then the executor will sign a petition to dissolve and end the probate process.

Probate Example

Edna passed away suddenly at the end of October while she was in the hospital. The executor of the will, her son, is now in charge of administering his mother’s estate. Unbeknownst to him, his mother had a hefty amount of debt to pay. After filing to start probate and being approved, he receives a list of people he needs to notify about the estate. Of those is a long list of creditors.

Because the amount is so large, Edna’s son believes the best way to cover the debt is to sell some of the estate. He checks with the beneficiaries, and they all agree to take a hit in their inheritance. After he has cleared Edna’s existing debt, he takes a final inventory of the estate. With evidence of the estate’s worth, he officially can distribute the will. He’s taking a little bit too long, however. He’s having a hard time letting go of his mother’s possessions. One of the beneficiaries files a claim against him. The probate court reviews the dispute and orders Edna’s son to administer the will as required.

Finally—reluctantly—he administered all of the estate. All that remains, clothing items and unwanted assets, are thrown away. He petitions to dissolve the estate and close the probate process.

Significance of Probate

Dealing with the estate of a decedent and family members who all want a piece of it is a difficult process. The potential for disagreements and conflicts is massive, especially when it comes to making decisions. Probate acts as the intermediary, peacekeeper, and final rule. It helps make administering a will easier, if only on the relationship front.