What can I expect during probate?
Following a loved one’s death, you may be dealing with many complex and confusing events. Certainly, you will have to face the funeral or memorial service, and you may be supporting and consoling grieving relatives and friends. Eventually, however, you will have to start the probate process. Whether your departed loved one named you as executor of the estate or you are the most logical person for the court to appoint as administrator, you will want to understand your role and what to expect from the process.
Your loved one may have left a carefully planned estate, including trusts and other devices that allow the assets to bypass probate. This may save you considerable time and effort. However, this is seldom the case, and probate is something you should expect to endure as patiently as possible.
The steps of probate
Probate is the legal process of closing someone’s estate and distributing its assets. If you are the personal representative of the estate, you will be involved in many aspects of probate. In fact, as executor or administrator, you will probably be the one responsible for getting the process started. You do this by gathering your loved one’s death certificate, will and other documents and applying with the court to open probate for the estate. The following steps will occur over the next few months:
- You will gather and protect all your loved one’s assets, including real estate and personal keepsakes.
- You will file your loved one’s last income tax returns and, if applicable, federal estate tax documents.
- You will alert your loved one’s creditors of his or her death, verify that any claims for payment of debts are valid and pay those debts from the estate’s assets.
- You will maintain and manage the estate’s assets, such as handling investments and keeping up with repairs and utility payments on the house.
When the process is complete and all your loved one’s obligations are met, you will receive authorization from the probate judge to distribute the assets according to your loved one’s will. If your loved one left no will, the court will determine who is legally eligible to receive the assets.
Probate typically takes about nine months, although many factors may slow it down. For example, the process may last longer if heirs squabble or contest the will, if the estate qualifies for federal taxes or if the courts are backlogged with cases. Throughout the process, you may learn that you want to spare your own loved ones the frustration of probate by developing a careful plan for your estate.