Probate is the court-supervised process of gathering the deceased person's assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing what's left to inheritors. Unless family members or creditors are fighting, there's very little court supervision. Mostly, probate is paperwork.
To help you understand how probate works, here is an overview of the probate process in the majority of states. In some states, including those that have adopted the entire set of laws called the Uniform Probate Code, the process is simpler and quicker than the one described here. (See Probate Process in Uniform Probate Code (UPC) States to find out if yours is a UPC State).
It's worth mentioning that many estates don't need to go through regular probate; many estates qualify as "small estates" under state law, even if they contain valuable assets. In that case, survivors may be able to use simplified probate procedure—or even transfer property without ever going to court.
When you probate a will, you start by asking the probate court to name you executor or personal representative, whichever term is used in your state. If there's no will, in some states you'll ask to be the "administrator."
To make this request, you will probably need to file an application, death certificate, and the original will (if you haven't deposited it with the court already) with the local probate court in the county where the deceased person was living at the time of death.
The document in which you make your request will probably be called a petition or application. It must contain certain information, such as the date of death, names of surviving family members and of beneficiaries named in the will, and so on. Many courts provide fill-in-the-blanks forms; if yours doesn't, you'll have to type something up from scratch. (Every probate court has its own rules about the documents it requires.)
If the deceased person owned real estate in more than one county in the same state, you can handle it all in one probate. There's no need to conduct a separate probate proceeding in the other county.
The probate court will schedule a hearing to give interested parties a chance to object to your appointment as executor. Before the hearing, you'll need to send formal legal notice to beneficiaries named in the will and to heirs under state law (the people who inherit if there's no valid will). You'll also send notices to creditors you know about, and publish a legal notice in a local newspaper to alert others.
In most cases, the hearing is a formality; you probably won't even need to show up. If your request is approved, the court will issue documents that authorize you to act on behalf of the estate. In most places, these papers are called Letters of Authority or Letters Testamentary, or Letters of Administration if there's no will. They're often referred to just as "letters."
If you live in another state, you may have some more requirements to fulfill. For example, you may need to file a document with the court in which you appoint a local resident as your "agent." This person can accept legal papers on your behalf and is subject to the authority of the court.
The probate court may require you to post a bond—a kind of insurance policy that protects the estate from losses you cause it, up to a certain dollar amount.
Many wills specifically say that no bond is required. If the will doesn't address this issue, it's up to the judge. If all the beneficiaries under the will agree, in writing, that it's not needed, the judge is unlikely to order it. But some courts always require a bond if the executor lives out of state or if the person serving as executor isn't the person named in the will.
If bond is required, its amount will depend on the size of the estate. Bonding companies, most of which are divisions of insurance companies typically charge a fee of about 10% of the face amount of the bond. You can pay for the bond from estate funds.
If there's a will, you must prove that it's valid. Usually, all you need is the statement of one or more of the will's witnesses, in one of these forms:
While the probate case is pending, you can gather assets and open a bank account in the name of the estate, and use the account to pay creditors. This includes obvious bills (outstanding credit card bills, utilities, funeral expenses, and so on), as well as taxes. Probate cases must also stay open for several months—about four to six, in most states—to give creditors a chance to come forward.
You'll probably need to give the court a list of the deceased person's property and, if necessary, get assets appraised. If you want to sell real estate or a business, you might need to get court permission. (But many wills authorize executors to proceed under a law called the Independent Administration of Estates Act, which gives executors freedom to pay creditors' claims and sell estate property without prior court approval.)
As executor, you will also be responsible for filing tax returns and paying tax bills on time. Below are possible tax returns you might need to file:
For more information on estate and inheritance taxes, see Estate Tax vs. Inheritance Tax: What's the Difference?
If all these tax returns seem like a lot of work, don't get discouraged—it's unlikely that you'll actually need to file more than a few. Keep in mind, too, that expert tax help is readily available and can be paid for with estate assets.
You can't give beneficiaries their inheritances until you're sure the estate has enough assets to pay debts and taxes. As long as you keep enough money to pay final taxes and expenses, however, you may be able to distribute some assets before the probate proceeding ends. State law might limit the amount you can give, and you might also need prior court approval.
There can be good reasons for distributing property sooner rather than later, especially if the estate clearly has plenty of money to pay debts. For example, if a car is left to sit, its value is likely to go down, and it's a bother to maintain. The same may be true for household items that don't have much monetary value. And some beneficiaries may be in need of money now—a college student, for example.
Always remember that you have a legal duty to be fair and impartial when dealing with beneficiaries. If you make early distributions, don't favor beneficiaries you're close to—it invites a fight.
When the creditors claim period has passed, you've paid debts, filed all necessary tax returns, and settled any disputes, you're ready to distribute remaining property to the beneficiaries and close the estate. Closing the estate releases you from your duties as executor.
Along with your request to close the estate, you'll need to give the court an accounting of your activities. The accounting shows where all the estate assets are going and shows that you've paid creditors. It also documents any income the estate assets received during probate and any losses to the estate—for example, if an asset declined in value. Some courts provide fill-in-the-blanks accounting forms. If yours doesn't, you can look at documents filed in other cases (probate records are public) to get an idea of what's required.
Excerpted in part from The Executor's Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo).