The probate process involves authenticating the deceased individual’s will, assessing assets, settling debts and taxes, and overseeing the allocation of the inheritance. After an asset-holder dies, the court will appoint a valid will's personal representative to administer the probate process. In the absence of a will, the court will appoint a state administrator to handle probate. Probate law varies by state, but there are steps in the process that are common.
First, a personal representative is appointed and is normally the person named in the will. It is the personal representative's responsibility to initiate the probate process. A personal representative can be a family member, a financial advisor, or any person the testator deemed capable of administering their estate. The personal representative files the will with the probate court, which initiates the probate process. A court officially appoints the personal representative as named in the will, giving the personal representative legal authority to act on the testator's behalf.
The personal representative's function is to locate and oversee all of the estate's assets and to determine each asset’s value. The majority of the deceased's assets are subject to probate court, where the deceased lived at the time of their death. Real estate is an exception, and probate may extend to any county where the real estate is located.
The personal representative will pay any taxes and debts owed by the deceased from the estate. The personal representative is responsible for filing the deceased's final, personal income tax returns. The personal representative's last task, via court authorization, is to distribute what remains of the estate to the beneficiaries.
Probate is required for any asset or account that does not have a joint owner or beneficiary named. If a joint owner or beneficiary is named then title changes automatically and probate becomes unnecessary.
If a person dies without a will, they are said to have died intestate. An estate can also be deemed instate if the will presented to the court is found to be invalid. The decedent's assets of an intestate estate follow a similar probate process, beginning with the appointment of an administrator. An administrator functions like a personal representative, receiving all legal claims against the estate, paying outstanding debts, and the decedent's taxes. Administrators must also seek out legal heirs, including surviving spouses, parents, and children. The probate court will determine the distribution of the estate among its legal heirs. In the absence of any family or other heirs, remaining assets go to the state.
The more complex or contested an estate is, the longer the probate process can take to finalize. The longer the process, the higher the cost. Probate without a will typically costs more than probate with a valid will, but neither scenario is inexpensive. Probate court files an estate's assets as a matter of public record, so if you want to keep your estate private, it is best to pursue other estate planning options such as a trust.
As estate planning attorneys, we can help you determine what planning tools are best for you. If you would like to discuss ways we can help, please contact our office at (352) 565-7737. Conversations are complimentary.