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.
Either a family attorney or an estate, or wills, attorney can help you prepare a living will, either as part of your general estate planning or as an individual document. The cost typically ranges from $250 to $500, depending on your attorney’s fees; some charge by the hour, while others have a flat rate for writing a living will. Some states require living wills to be notarized, which adds an average of $5 to $15. In a living will — also called an advanced healthcare directive — you specify whether you want to be kept on life support if you become terminally ill or lapse into a persistent vegetative state. You can also answer other important questions in a living will like your preferences for tube feeding, artificial hydration and pain medication in situations when you cannot communicate your wishes on your own.
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.
Estate planning is an ongoing process and should be started as soon as an individual has any measurable asset base. As life progresses and goals shift, the estate plan should shift in line with new goals. Lack of adequate estate planning can cause undue financial burdens to loved ones (estate taxes can run as high as 40%), so at the very least a will should be set up—even if the taxable estate is not large.
Homestead property, which follows its own set of unique rules in states like Florida, must be dealt with separately from other assets. In many common law jurisdictions such as Canada, parts of the US, the UK, Australia and India, any jointly-owned property passes automatically to the surviving joint owner separately from any will, unless the equitable title is held as tenants in common.
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.
The cost of an estate plan depends largely on the number of parts it includes and the complexity of the documents. The most basic estate plan is simply a will, but it may also include designating power of attorney or a health care proxy to another person, writing a living will, or making a HIPAA authorization. The average national cost to make an estate plan ranges from $350 to $900, but can cost much more in complicated situations. For example, an estate attorney may charge only $900 to prepare a basic will providing outright distribution — meaning that property and assets are distributed upon death. Writing a more complicated will and holding assets in trusts can cost $3,000, or more. The process of creating an estate plan generally takes two to four weeks, starting with the initial consultation with the wills attorney to identify areas of concern in order to design an estate plan that fits your goals and budget. Once an estate plan is written, the attorney meets with the clients, a notary, and two neutral witnesses to review and sign the plan and associated documents.
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.
When Aretha Franklin died intestate—without a legal will—in 2018, she joined a surprisingly long list of famous people, including Prince, who also did the same. By not preparing the documents, she made the task of settling her affairs more complicated for her survivors. While your estate may not be as large or complex as a famous singer's, it's still important to have a plan in place in the event of your death.