When a person dies, their last will and testament (assuming they prepared on in advance) is handled and their wishes for the distribution of their personal property implemented through a process called probate. Probate simply means the procedure by which their last written directives are legally certified as the final statement of their wishes regarding their worldly possessions (including any property or properties they may have owned). It also confirms the appointment of a person or entity the deceased person selected to administer their estate. The term probate is also frequently used to refer to the entire process of “probating” an estate. In this usage, it refers to the entire process that gathers all available assets, pays any outstanding debts, taxes, administrative expenses and then finally makes the specified distribution of remaining assets to those persons or entities designated by the will.
The personal representative (also known as the executor or executrix) who is named in the will is legally in charge of this process and is responsible for handling the orderly method for administration of the estate as set forth by the probate laws and procedures of their state. The executor is typically held accountable for their actions and decisions by the heirs and other beneficiaries and in some cases may be formally supervised by a probate court. If a will does not exist or a personal representative is not designated in the will, the court will appoint one (assuming there is personal property to distribute).
The personal representative is often entitled by law to a reasonable fee or commission for their services.
Probate law generally encourages or provides for partial distributions of funds during the period of administration and assets are often distributed “in kind” rather than sold during this period. Tax laws generally look to the personal representative as being responsible for making death tax filings and other tax payments from the outstanding assets of the deceased. Therefore, choosing an executor / executrix / personal representative is an important decision.
The basic job of administration and accounting for assets must be done whether the estate is handled by a personal representative as part of the probate process or if probate is avoided. In the recent past, lawyers and other professionals have advocated the use of probate avoidance techniques (such as revocable trusts, etc.) in states where the probate process has been seen to be too slow and overly expensive. In recent years, many states have simplified or streamlined their probate processes and, in such states, there is now less reason to employ probate avoidance techniques.
A probate court, which is sometimes referred to as a surrogate court, is a specialized court and legal process that deals with matters pertaining to the probate and the administration of the estate of deceased persons.
These specialized courts ascertain and oversee that proper administration and distribution of the assets of a decedent (one who has died), determine and certify the validity of wills, enforce the provisions of a valid will (by issuing the grant of probate), prevent improper action or malfeasance by executors and administrators of estates, and provide for the equitable distribution of the assets of persons who die intestate (without a valid will). In such cases, the court may appoint a personal representative to administer the matters pertaining to an estate.
If there are disputes regarding an estate, the probate court ultimately decides who is to receive the property of a deceased person. In a case of an intestacy, the court determines who is to receive the deceased’s property under the laws it is governed by. The probate court will oversee the process of distributing the deceased’s assets to the proper beneficiaries. In some states or jurisdictions, probate courts are also referred to as orphans courts, superior court, courts of ordinary or other names. Not all jurisdictions have specific probate courts and, in some locales, probate matters are handled by a chancery court or another court of equity.
The probate court can be petitioned by parties that are interested in or who have claims against an estate, such as when a beneficiary feels that an estate is being mishandled or someone to whom the decedent owed money. The court has the authority to demand that an executor, executrix or personal representative give an account of their actions on behalf of an estate.