Most estates in the United States include property that is subject to probate proceedings. If the property of an estate is not automatically devised to a surviving spouse or heir through principles of joint ownership or survivorship, or otherwise by operation of law, and was not transferred to a trust during the decedent's lifetime, it is generally necessary to "probate the estate", whether or not the decedent had a valid will. For example, life insurance and retirement accounts with properly completed beneficiary designations should avoid probate, as will most bank accounts titled jointly or made payable on death.
A grandfather may encourage his grandchildren to seek college or advanced degrees and thus transfer assets to an entity, such as a 529 plan, for the purpose of current or future education funding. That may be a much more tax-efficient move than having those assets transferred after death to fund college when the beneficiaries are of college age. The latter may trigger multiple tax events that can severely limit the amount of funding available to the kids.
In a formal probate proceeding, a hearing must be held to establish the death of the testator, the residency of the decedent, the genuineness of the will, its conformance with statutory requirements for its execution, and the competency of the testator at the time the will was made. These requirements are usually fulfilled by the attesting witnesses who were present at the time the will was made and who certify that it was properly executed. The number of attesting witnesses is prescribed by law. If fewer than the required number witness a will, it will be declared void, and the testator's property will pass according to the laws of descent and distribution.
Probate proceedings are usually held in the state in which the decedent had domicile or permanent residence at the time of death. If, however, the decedent owned real property in a another state, the will disposing of these assets must also be probated in that state.To qualify as a will in probate, an instrument must be of testamentary character and comply with all statutory requirements. A document is testamentary when it does not take effect until after the death of the person making it and allows the individual to retain the property under personal control during her or his lifetime. A will that has been properly executed by a competent person—the testator—as required by law is entitled to be probated, even if some of its provisions are invalid, obscure, or cannot be implemented.
Executors "step into the shoes" of the deceased and have similar rights and powers to wind up the personal affairs of the deceased. This may include continuing or filing lawsuits that the deceased was entitled to bring, making claims for wrongful death, paying off creditors, or selling or disposing of assets not particularly gifted in the will, among others. But the role of the executor is to resolve the testator's estate and to distribute the estate to the beneficiaries or those otherwise entitled.
PROBATUM fuit huiusmodi testamentum apud Londinium coram  venerabili et egregio viro domino Richardo Raines, milite, legum doctore curiae praerogativae  Cantuariensis magistro custodis sive commissarii legitime constituti vicesimo tertio die mensis Junii Anno Domini Millesimo Sexcenti Nonaginta Septimo juramento  Mariae Bathurst relictae et executricis in dicto testamento nominata cui commissa fuit administratio omnium et singulorum bonorum, jurium et creditorum dicti defuncti de bene et fideliter administrando  eadem ad sancta Dei Evangelis jurat. Examinatur.
Informal probate proceedings generally do not require a hearing. The personal representative files the death certificate and will, along with a petition to admit the will under informal probate. The clerk of probate court reviews the submissions and recommends to the court that the will be probated. Once the court issues the order for informal probate, the personal representative files a series of forms that demonstrate that notice has been given to all interested parties about the probate, the decedent's creditors have been paid, and the estate's assets have been collected, appraised, and distributed to the designated heirs.
The probate process begins when the personal representative files with the clerk of the probate court a copy of the death certificate along with the will and a petition to admit the will to probate and to grant letters testamentary, which authorize him or her to distribute the estate. Although the personal representative usually files the probate petition, it can be filed by any person who has a pecuniary interest in the will. In states governed by the UPC, the personal representative must elect whether to proceed with formal or informal probate at the time of filing. However, a probate proceeding may be switched from informal to formal during the course of administration, if issues so warrant.
Whether to spend your time and effort planning to avoid probate depends on a number of factors, most notably your age, your health, and your wealth. If you're young and in good health, adopting a complex probate-avoidance plan now may mean you'll have to re-do it as your life situation changes. And if you have very little property, you might not want to spend your time planning to avoid probate because your property may qualify for your state's simplified probate procedure.
One way to avoid U.S. Federal estate and gift taxes is to distribute the property in incremental gifts during the person's lifetime. Individuals may give away as much as $15,000 per year (in 2018) without incurring gift tax. Other tax free alternatives include paying a grandchild's college tuition or medical insurance premiums free of gift tax—but only if the payments are made directly to the educational institution or medical provider.