Probate Process with Last Will and Testament.
The probate process begins when a person dies. If the decedent has executed a Last Will and Testament, the designated probate executor must provide an original copy of the Will and death certificate to the probate court. In cases where no Will was executed, the probate court will appoint a family member to administer the estate. If no family members exist or choose not to accept being appointed to the position, the probate judge will appoint a public administrator.
Once the probate process is initiated, the designated estate executor is required to appear before a judge. During this meeting, the probate judge will formally appoint the named personal representative designated in the Will. If the decedent died intestate (without a Will), the judge will determine if the person stepping up to the position is qualified to handle the duties. The probate judge will review the Will to ensure it is valid. Once the Will is validated it is admitted into probate.
When the estate enters probate, it becomes public record. In most states, public notice of probate must be placed in the newspaper of the decedent's place of residence. The purpose of public notice is to inform potential beneficiaries and creditors of the decedent's death.
During the probate process, the estate administrator is required to collect, inventory and appraise all assets subject to probate. Assets may include real estate and financial holdings such as checking and savings accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and monies owed to the decedent. Personal belongings such as household furnishings and jewelry may or may not require the services of a professional appraiser. However, they must be identified in the inventory list.
In most cases, an estate bank account must be setup to pay outstanding bills and estate expenses. The decedent's financial accounts are usually transferred to the new account. However, investment accounts are generally held separately and distributed to named beneficiaries directly from the investment firm.
The estate administrator is responsible for paying funeral expenses, outstanding bills, mortgage payments, taxes and probate administration fees. In cases where the decedent does not have the funds to pay outstanding debts associated with their estate, the administrator or probate attorney will negotiate with creditors to reduce or eliminate outstanding balances. The administrator is never personally responsible for paying debts associated with the estate.
After expenses and debts have been paid, the estate administrator can distribute the remaining property according to the Will. If no Will exists, the probate executor must distribute property according to state law.