Probate occurs when there is a lack of testamentary instruments governing the disposition of the deceased assets. Either the decedent passed away without a will, a trust, or some other instrument devising his or her property, or the governing instrument was flawed. Probate is different in every state, but the general scheme is the same. 

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The probate process can be broken down into the following major steps.
    1. Initial Procedures: Admitting the decedent's Will to probate court is the first step in the probate process. The original copy of the Will must be located and delivered to the appropriate court in the state that handles probate administration. Generally, the Will must be accompanied by a petition to the court that includes information about the decedent, his or her death, and the Will. Delivery of the Will to the probate court transforms the Will from a private document into a public document. The Will can be reviewed by anyone who is willing to make the effort to go to the courthouse (or similar location) and review the court file that now includes the Will.
    2. Administering the Estate: Collect and inventory the assets, pay the debts, taxes and the expenses of administration, and then distribute the remaining assets to those persons entitled to them. For more on estate administration, read our Executor Checklist and Estate Administration Guide.
    3. Closing the Estate: The probate court must receive certain documents before distributions can be made to beneficiaries. After making final distributions of the assets, and sometimes immediately prior to making final distributions to the beneficiaries, a final report and/or accounting must be filed with the probate court. Generally, the beneficiaries are given the opportunity to object to any items of the report or accounting that they believe are incorrect or inappropriate. It is also their opportunity to raise any final issues they may have regarding the executor’s handling of the estate. After resolving any issues and making any appropriate adjustments, the court approves the closing of the estate. Generally, the beneficiaries must sign receipts indicating that they have received their distributions. The executor must file these receipts with the court before being discharged as executor.
    4. Avoiding Probate: Due to delays, estate administration costs, or privacy issues, you may wish to avoid probate. Read more on the details of avoiding probate here.

Get started Start Your Estate Planning Answer some questions. We’ll take care of the rest.

Get started Start Your Estate Planning Answer some questions. We’ll take care of the rest.