Probate can be a long and complicated legal process, but it doesn’t have to be – especially if you have a decent grasp of what to expect. Dealing with a loved one’s postmortem affairs is never an ideal situation to be in, but it can be made easier by understanding the general flow of the probate process.
We’ll outline the probate process in nine steps below to you understand what you can anticipate during this time.
Step 1: Meet with an Attorney
You should begin the probate process by meeting with a probate lawyer who can help you gather important documentation – such as the deceased’s will and death certificate – that will need to be used later on in the process. If you are the executor named in the deceased’s will, the attorney can also help you review the deceased’s assets and how they’re titled, as well as review a list of possible debts the deceased may have had.
Step 2: File a Petition with the Probate Court
The probate process begins in earnest when you file for the Petition for Administration and associated documents with the probate court in the county where the deceased had a residence. Also at the time of filing, those named in the deceased’s will and all potential legal heirs are formally notified that the deceased’s estate is open. This step may be a legal formality if all such individuals were aware of the deceased’s passing around the time it occurred.
About a month may pass before the court will issue Letters of Administration, indicating that the petition has been granted. The Letters of Administration will also designate the executor – or whoever filed the petition – as the deceased’s personal representative, allowing them access to the deceased’s assets and to proceed with estate administration tasks – the first of which may be to open an estate account that serves as a depository for all estate assets subject to probate.
Step 3: Notify the Deceased’s Creditors
The personal representative must attempt to notify the deceased’s creditors that the estate is open. This can be done directly, but it is required to publish a general Notice to Creditors in a newspaper local to the deceased’s residence at least once per week for two consecutive weeks.
Creditors typically have within three months from the date the notice is published to file claims against the estate. Throughout this period, the personal representative must make a list of all known and potential creditors and file this with the court.
Step 4: Inventory the Deceased’s Estate
The total net worth of the deceased’s estate must now be assessed. To do this, the personal representative must conduct a thorough inventory and valuation of the deceased’s property. Such property includes bank accounts, mutual funds, stocks, bonds, real estate titles, vehicle titles, and other countable assets – sometimes including an inventory of property inside of the deceased’s residence.
Once the inventory is complete, the personal representative will file it with the court.
Step 5: Close Creditor Period & Pay Valid Debts
Once three months have elapsed since the deceased’s creditors were notified (Step 3), the personal representative will begin the process of closing the estate by paying all valid debts. Any claims received after this point are not considered valid and can be successfully disputed.
Debts must be paid by using the cash available in the deceased’s estate account. If there is no liquidity, the personal representative must sell off other estate property to generate more cash to satisfy creditors’ claims.
Step 6: File & Pay Estate Taxes
At this point, a final income tax return that includes the estate tax and all other applicable taxes must be filed and paid to the IRS. This is a highly important matter because the personal representative, as a fiduciary, could incur personal liability for any penalties or unpaid taxes associated with the deceased’s estate. It is vital to have someone qualified, such as a probate attorney, to walk you through what needs to be done at this stage in the probate process.
Step 7: Final Estate Accounting
The personal representative should have been keeping detailed records of every fiduciary action he or she has taken up until now. At this point, though, these records will need to be organized and consolidated. Records must include the estate’s assets, any distributions made to creditors, probate fees, attorney’s fees, as well as the fee the personal representative is entitled to take.
Step 8: Distribute Remaining Assets to Beneficiaries
Finally, the people named in the deceased’s will can receive their inheritances in accordance with the deceased’s instructions. A plan for how this distribution will ultimately take place must be agreed upon by all applicable parties.
Step 9: Close the Estate
Once all of the estate’s remaining property has been distributed among the deceased’s beneficiaries, the personal representative has one more task to accomplish. He or she must file a petition to discharge the personal representative from his or her fiduciary position and close the estate. At this point, the probate process is ended.
Do You Need Help with Probate?
Legal representation throughout the probate process can help you move through this process as quickly as possible and with as few headaches as possible. This is a difficult matter that comes at a difficult time, and our probate attorneys at The Dorcey Law Firm, PLC are here to help you through each step of the way.