If you decide to handle the probate court proceeding entirely on your own—or you’re hiring a lawyer only for advice and coaching as necessary—you need to get comfortable with the local probate court.
You’ve probably heard the expression "all politics is local." Well, all probate is local, too. The process may be governed by state law, but every local court has its own rules and customs, and they play an important role. Here are some tips for success as you make your way through the process.
The first step is to find the right court for the probate case. It’s not always as easy as it sounds, because many states don’t have anything that’s actually called "probate court." You could find yourself filing for probate in Surrogate’s Court, Orphans’ Court, Circuit Court, District Court, or Superior Court, depending on the state.
How do you find out which one is right for you? A good place to start is your state court system’s website—you can probably find it by searching for, for example, “Minnesota courts.” If that doesn’t help, search online for a court in your county, call the clerk, and ask where a probate case should be filed.
Probate cases are filed in the county where the deceased person resided or owned real estate. Some counties have a main courthouse and several smaller branches. Check the county’s rules to see whether or not you have the option of filing at a branch courthouse.
Almost every court has its own rules about how documents must be submitted and how probate cases proceed. Get your hands on as much local information as you can—it will be a tremendous help when it’s time to file papers, pay fees, and meet important deadlines.
Ask the court clerk for:
Many courts publish their rules in a booklet called "Probate Rules" or "Probate Practice Manual," which may be available in print form or online. The rules may cover everything from what size paper you must use, how to staple your court documents, and what color ink to sign them in. Follow them scrupulously.
If fill-in-the-blanks forms are offered by the state or county, they will save you a huge amount of time. More and more states (especially ones that have adopted the set of laws called the Uniform Probate Code) are providing such forms. You may even be able to fill them out online, and then print them out for filing.
Your court may have its own forms—a special cover sheet, for example—that aren’t used by other courts. Make sure you’ve got everything.
Finally, make a point of being patient, prepared, and polite when you’re dealing with the court clerks. You’ll see them much more than you’ll ever see a probate judge. They can’t give you personalized advice about how you should be handling the probate—that’s what you pay a lawyer for. So don’t ask them for what they can’t give. But do take advantage of their knowledge and experience, which can help you through the unfamiliar world of probate court and make your life much easier.