Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), a set of laws written by national experts with the goals of making the probate process simpler and giving executors more flexibility. So if you're the executor of an estate in a UPC state—or a few other states with relatively streamlined probate procedures, such as Texas and Wisconsin—you're in luck.
UPC states offer three kinds of probate: informal, unsupervised formal, and supervised formal. Here is an overview of each, keeping in mind that each UPC state is a little different; even if a state has adopted the UPC, it can still modify the code.
Most probates in UPC states are informal, with no court hearings. You can use informal probate whether or not the deceased person left a will and whether the estate is big or small. But if anyone wants to contest the proceeding, you cannot use informal probate.
Your first step is to get permission from the probate court to serve as the personal representative (the term that UPC states use instead of "executor" or "administrator"). You can probably get a fill-in-the-blanks application from the court. You must apply within three years after the deceased person's death.
A court employee, usually called a "probate registrar" or "register," will approve or deny your application. It should be approved unless someone objects, you missed the three-year deadline, or the will (if there is one) does not appear to be valid. Once your application is approved, your authority to act on behalf of the estate will be granted in a document that's usually titled Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration. People commonly refer to it simply as "letters."
You will need to send formal written notices of the probate to heirs, will beneficiaries, and any creditors that you know about. You may also need to publish a notice in the local newspaper (in some states, before the court actually appoints you as personal representative).
One of your first tasks is to prepare an inventory and appraisal of the deceased person's assets. For some assets, you may be able to estimate of the market value; for others, you'll need an appraisal from an expert. In some states, you file this inventory with the probate registrar; in others, you can show it to the registrar and mail it to interested parties, but it doesn't have to become part of the public records.
You are responsible for keeping all estate property safe during the probate.
When it's clear that the estate has enough assets to pay debts, taxes, and expenses of administration (court and probate lawyer fees, for example), you can start distributing property to the inheritors. As a practical matter, this means that you should wait until the deadline for creditors to file claims has passed—usually three or four months from the time you publish the notice to creditors.
After you have distributed all the property, you can end the probate informally.
First, you'll prepare a document called a final accounting, to show how you handled the estate assets. Your state may provide a fill-in-the-blanks form. The accounting lists any income the estate assets received during probate and any losses to the estate—for example, if an asset declined in value. It also shows the amounts you paid to creditors and how much you distributed to beneficiaries. You'll file the accounting with the court and will probably be required to send copies to interested parties, including beneficiaries and creditors.
Then you need to file a form called a "Closing Statement" (or a similar name) stating that you have paid all debts and taxes, distributed the property, and submitted the final accounting. You may also need to send a copy to each person who received property from the estate and to any creditor who hasn't been paid. Unless someone comes forward to argue about something, your job is done.
If you wish, you can choose to have a formal closing to your informal probate. The court will review your accounting and then, if everything is satisfactory, issue an order officially approving how you handled the estate. Some personal representatives want a formal closing because they have an accounting question for the court to resolve, or because they want court approval to help protect themselves from possible claims that they mishandled something. For example, if you paid yourself a good-sized but fair fee for serving as executor, you might want the court to approve it so that beneficiaries will know you handled the matter properly.
Unsupervised formal probate in UPC states is a traditional court proceeding, much like regular probate in other states.
Because it is lengthier and more expensive than informal probate, generally unsupervised formal probate is used only if there's a good reason, such as disagreements among family members or creditors, possible complaints from beneficiaries about your handling of the estate, or not enough money to pay all the creditors.
Before the court appoints you as personal representative, you will have to schedule a hearing and send written notice to all interested persons ahead of time. Interested persons include beneficiaries named in the will, the deceased person's heirs (relatives who would inherit under state law if there were no valid will), and anyone who has formally asked the court to receive notices connected with the case. You'll also need to publish a notice of the proceeding in a local newspaper. Anyone who objects to your appointment can speak at the hearing.
You may need to get the court's permission before you sell the deceased person's real estate (unless the will authorizes it), distribute property to beneficiaries, or pay a lawyer—or yourself—for work done on behalf of the estate.
Supervised formal probate is used only if the court finds it necessary—for example, because a beneficiary can't look after his or her own interests and needs the court's protection.
The process is generally the same as in unsupervised formal probate. But the judge can require you, as personal representative, to do whatever is necessary to safeguard the estate and get the property to its rightful inheritors. For example, the judge might order a physical inspection of estate assets or require you to submit monthly accountings. You must also get court approval before distributing any property.