The granting of probate is the first step in the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person, resolving all claims and distributing the deceased person's property under a will. A probate court decides the legal validity of a testator's (deceased person's) will and grants its approval, also known as granting probate, to the executor. The probated will then becomes a legal instrument that may be enforced by the executor in the law courts if necessary. A probate also officially appoints the executor (or personal representative), generally named in the will, as having legal power to dispose of the testator's assets in the manner specified in the testator's will. However, through the probate process, a will may be contested.
Mediation serves as an alternative to a full-scale litigation to settle disputes. At a mediation, family members and beneficiaries discuss plans on transfer of assets. Because of the potential conflicts associated with blended families, step siblings, and multiple marriages, creating an estate plan through mediation allows people to confront the issues head-on and design a plan that will minimize the chance of future family conflict and meet their financial goals.
After opening the probate case with the court, the personal representative inventories and collects the decedent's property. Next, he pays any debts and taxes, including estate tax in the United States, if the estate is taxable at the federal or state level. Finally, he distributes the remaining property to the beneficiaries, either as instructed in the will, or under the intestacy laws of the state.
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.
Wills are a common estate planning tool, and are usually the simplest device for planning the distribution of an estate. It is important that a will be created and executed in compliance with the laws of the jurisdiction where it is created. If it is possible that probate proceedings will occur in a different jurisdiction, it is important also to ensure that the will complies with the laws of that jurisdiction or that the jurisdiction will follow the provisions of a valid out-of-state will even if they might be invalid for a will executed in that jurisdiction.
In some cases, where the person named as executor cannot administer the probate, or wishes to have someone else do so, another person is named administrator. An executor or an administrator may receive compensation for his service. Additionally, beneficiaries of an estate may be able to remove the appointed executor if he or she is not capable of properly fulfilling his or her duties.
In the United States, without a beneficiary statement, the default provision in the contract or custodian-agreement (for an IRA) will apply, which may be the estate of the owner resulting in higher taxes and extra fees. Generally, beneficiary designations are made for life insurance policies, employee benefits, (including retirement plans and group life insurance) and Individual Retirement Accounts.
Although legal restrictions may apply, it is broadly possible to convey property outside of probate, through such tools as a living trust, forms of joint property ownership that include a right of survivorship, payable on death account, or beneficiary designation on a financial account or insurance policy. Beneficiary designations are considered distributions under the law of contracts and cannot be changed by statements or provisions outside of the contract, such as a clause in a will.
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.
The persons who are actually given the job of dealing with the deceased's assets are called "personal representatives" or "PRs". If the deceased left a valid will, the PRs are the "executors" appointed by the will—"I appoint X and Y to be my executors etc." If there is no will or if the will does not contain a valid appointment of executors (for example if they are all dead) then the PRs are called "administrators". So, executors obtain a grant of probate that permits them to deal with the estate and administrators obtain a grant of administration that lets them do the same. Apart from that distinction, the function of executors and administrators is exactly the same.
The executor also has to pay off any taxes and debt owed by the deceased from the estate. Creditors usually have a limited amount of time from the date they were notified of the testator’s death to make claims against the estate for money owed to them. Claims that are rejected by the executor can be taken to court where a probate judge will have the final say as to whether or not the claim is valid.
Your executor must find, secure, and manage your assets during the probate process, which commonly takes a few months to a year. Depending on the contents of your will, and on the amount of your debts, the executor may have to decide whether or not to sell your real estate, securities, or other property. For example, if your will makes a number of cash bequests but your estate consists mostly of valuable artwork, your collection might have to be appraised and sold to produce cash. Or, if you have many outstanding debts, your executor might have to sell some of your property to pay them.
A probate proceeding may involve either formal or informal procedures. Traditionally, probate proceedings were governed by formal procedures that required the probate court to hold hearings and issue orders involving routine matters. Consequently, the legal costs of probating an estate could be substantial. States that have adopted the UPC provisions on probate procedures allow informal probate proceedings that remove the probate court from most stages of the process, with the result that informal probate is cheaper and quicker than formal probate. Most small estates benefit from an informal probate proceeding.
Because life insurance proceeds generally are not taxed for U.S. Federal income tax purposes, a life insurance trust could be used to pay estate taxes. However, if the decedent holds any incidents of ownership like the ability to remove or change a beneficiary, the proceeds will be treated as part of his estate and will generally be subject to the U.S. Federal estate tax. For this reason, the trust vehicle is used to own the life insurance policy. The trust must be irrevocable to avoid taxation of the life insurance proceeds.