Probate court is a specialized type of court within the judicial system. It is primarily associated with overseeing the management and distribution of a deceased individual’s estate. However, probate courts also handle a number of other important matters that include things such as conservatorships and guardianships of adults and children deemed to be in need of such services. Probate courts also make critical decisions regarding the commitment of mentally ill persons to mental health institutions designed to help them.
While probate court does handle other matters, it most frequently handles the probating of the estate of a deceased individual. A probate court judge is tasked with monitoring the probate process to help ensure that things like the creditors of the deceased are paid and, after all debts and taxes are paid, the remaining assets of the estate are properly distributed to the beneficiaries as directed in a valid will or, in the absence of a valid will, according to the intestacy laws of the state.
Probate begins when a person, usually a friend of family member of the deceased, files a petition for probate with the probate court. During the probate process, when there is a will, the probate court will first verify that the will is valid. Should someone contest the validity of the will, the probate court will handle the resulting litigation. Evidence to support the validity or the invalidity of the will is presented to the court and the court will determine whether the will is valid in whole, in part, or completely invalid. After the validity of the will has been verified, the court will appoint a person to take over control of the deceased’s estate. This person is usually referred to as the personal representative or executor of the estate. It is most common for the will to designate the personal representative. Should the will fail to designate a personal representative, however, the court will appoint one.
The probate court will oversee the work of the personal representative as they administer the estate. The personal representative has many tasks to complete, such as:
- Gathering and managing assets of the estate
- Opening a bank account for the estate
- Making arrangements for the publications of legal notices in a newspaper
- Determining which creditor claims are valid
- Paying valid creditor claims (these can include things like funeral costs and final medical bills of the deceased)
- Providing notice to beneficiaries of the estate
- If needed, selling assets of the estate
- Filing inventories with the court
- Filing a last tax return on behalf od the deceased
- Distributing assets to the proper beneficiaries.
Depending on the complexity of the estate and whether any problems arise during the probate process arise, such as challenging of a will or needing to replace the personal representative, probate can be a lengthy process. It can take months or even years to fully wrap up the probate of an estate. In addition to the time commitment, probate can also be quite complicated. This is all on top of the fact that you are grieving the loss of a loved one. That is why you need a dedicated probate attorney to help take on the legal burdens associated with the probate process. During this emotional time, dependable legal counsel can prove invaluable.