Wills and Trusts:

Understanding Probate

Probate is the legal process of settling the estate of a deceased person, specifically resolving all claims and distributing the decedent's property. It includes:

  • Proving in court that the deceased person's will is valid

  • Identifying and inventorying the deceased person's property

  • Having the property appraised

  • Paying debts and taxes

  • Distributing the remaining property as the will (or state law, if there's no will) directs

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 have left. After that, relatives and creditors are officially notified of your death.

Your executor must find, secure and manage your assets during the probate process, which commonly takes from a few months up 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.

In most states, immediate family members may ask the court to release short-term support funds while the probate proceedings are taking place. Eventually, the court will grant your executor permission to pay your debts and taxes and divide the rest among the people or organizations named in your will. Finally, your property will be transferred to its new owners.