In general, the probate process involves collecting the decedent's assets, liquidating liabilities, paying necessary taxes, and distributing property to heirs. Probate procedures are governed by state law and have been the subject of debate and reform since the 1960s. The Uniform Probate Code (UPC) was first proposed in 1969 by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association. The prime focus of the UPC is to simplify the probate process. The UPC, which has been amended numerous times, has been adopted in its entirety by 16 states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah. The other 36 states have adopted some part of the UPC but still retain distinct procedures.
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After probate is granted, executors are empowered to deal with estate assets, including selling and transferring assets, for the benefit of the beneficiaries. For some transactions, an executor may be required to produce a copy of the probate as proof of authority to deal with property still in the name of the deceased person, as is invariably the case with the transfer or conveyance of land. Executors are also responsible for paying creditors and for distributing the residual assets in accordance with the will. Some Australian jurisdictions require a notice of intended distribution to be published before the estate is distributed.
In the public mind, the term “probate” is often associated with expense, delay, suffering and, sometimes, prolonged legal disputes. While there are many probate myths and misconceptions, it is basically a court-supervised method of handling the property of a deceased individual. During probate, the court will appoint someone to be in charge of the deceased person’s financial affairs, property, assets, and debts. Outstanding debts are addressed, and the remaining property is distributed to the heirs of the deceased.
As a general rule, a will has no legal effect until it is probated. A will should be probated immediately, and no one has the right to suppress it. The person with possession of a will, usually the personal representative or the decedent's attorney, must produce it. Statutes impose penalties for concealing or destroying a will or for failing to produce it within a specified time.
When all these steps have been completed, the executor can petition the court for permission to distribute what is left of the decedent's assets to the beneficiaries named in the will. This usually requires the court's permission, which is typically only granted after the executor has submitted a complete accounting of every financial transaction they've engaged in throughout the probate process.
For estates that do not qualify for simplified proceedings, a court having jurisdiction of the decedent's estate (a probate court) supervises the probate process to ensure administration and disposition of the decedent's property is conducted in accord with the law of that jurisdiction, and in a manner consistent with decedent's intent as manifested in his will. Distribution of certain estate assets may require selling assets, including real estate.
Probate usually works like this: After your death, the person you named in your will as executor—or, if you die without a will, the person appointed by a judge—files papers in the local probate court. The executor proves the validity of your will and presents the court with lists of your property, your debts, and who is to inherit what you've left. Then, relatives and creditors are officially notified of your death.
Applications for probate are made to the probate office in the jurisdiction with which the deceased has a close connection, not necessarily where the person died. Normally, only the executor of a will can apply for a grant of probate, and it is their duty to obtain probate in a timely manner. Executors can apply for probate themselves (which is often done to reduce legal fees) or be represented by a lawyer. With the application for probate, the applicant must also provide the original of the will, an official death certificate (not the one issued by a medical professional), a copy of the death notice and a statement of the known assets and liabilities of the deceased estate. The applicant may also be required to have published a notice in a major newspaper of an intention to make the application for probate.
Some states have procedures that allow for the transfer of assets from small estates through affidavit or through a simplified probate process. For example, California has a “Small Estate Summary Procedure” to allow the summary transfer of a decedent's asset without a formal Probate proceeding. The dollar limit by which the Small Estate procedure can be effectuated is $150,000.
Life insurance serves as a source to pay death taxes and expenses, fund business buy-sell agreements, and fund retirement plans. If sufficient insurance proceeds are available and the policies are properly structured, any income tax on the deemed dispositions of assets following the death of an individual can be paid without resorting to the sale of assets. Proceeds from life insurance that are received by the beneficiaries upon the death of the insured are generally income tax-free.
Lack of testamentary capacity – This is the legal term describing a person’s legal ability to make or alter a valid will. This becomes an issue when someone claims that the testator – the person who made the will – did not understand what was happening. Examples would include the testator not understanding they were signing a will, had no comprehension of what property was being willed away, or no comprehension of who is receiving the property.
Before exploring the types of probate, we want to express our option that if you have been named as the executor of an estate, probating a will is not something that you should try to do alone. As the executor, you have the fiduciary responsibility to make sure all estate matters are handled properly, and experienced legal counsel is essential to avoid needless mistakes and delays in the probate process.
Family attorneys and estate attorneys, also called probate and wills attorneys, can each prepare wills. The type of lawyer best suited to prepare your will depends on your situation. Most family attorneys provide services to prepare basic wills, including bequeathing property and personal items to family or naming a guardian for minor children. However, estate attorneys specialize in preparing wills in more complex situations. Consider hiring an estate attorney if you:
Estate planning is the process of anticipating and arranging, during a person's life, for the management and disposal of that person's estate during the person's life, in the event the person becomes incapacitated and after death. The planning includes the bequest of assets to heirs and may include minimizing gift, estate, generation skipping transfer, and taxes. Estate planning includes planning for incapacity as well as a process of reducing or eliminating uncertainties over the administration of a probate and maximizing the value of the estate by reducing taxes and other expenses. The ultimate goal of estate planning can only be determined by the specific goals of the estate owner and may be as simple or complex as the owner's wishes and needs directs. Guardians are often designated for minor children and beneficiaries in incapacity.