Probate refers to the legal process that must take place after an individual’s death to enforce their Will, supervise the distribution of assets, and more. Many individuals find themselves confronted with these proceedings following the death of a loved one. Because this is often an emotionally difficult time, it can be helpful to know what to expect beforehand.
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If you are required to appear in probate court, the best thing to do is familiarize yourself with the probate documents you will be responsible for. While this may seem challenging, the information listed below should help you prepare. Read through our checklist for a better idea of what to expect if you have to appear in probate court and which papers to bring with you when you go. Keep reading to learn:
What to Expect at Probate Court
The probate process begins when an individual (usually a spouse or adult child of the deceased) files an application with the county court and submits the deceased person’s Will and death certificate. The court will then step in to validate the Will and appoint the named executor. At this point, either the executor will take over the probate process or further court proceedings will be required. There are several reasons you might have to attend probate court on behalf of a loved one.
Probate court is most commonly required if someone dies without a Will. In these cases, the court would supervise the distribution of assets based on that state’s succession laws (typically passing belongings to children, parents, and then siblings). Probate court can also be required if an Estate exceeds a certain value or if there are a large amount of solely owned assets. For example, if the deceased held a large amount of stocks or was the sole account holder on a bank account with a large sum of money. In these cases, probate court may be required to supervise and approve the distribution of funds and assets.
Probate court can also be required if there are disputes around the validity of a Will. If this is the case, you and other witnesses may be required to testify in court that you did or did not see the signing of the Will. Most Estate Planning aims to prevent these challenges, but they can still arise from time to time. If you are concerned about probate or want to better prepare yourself for probate court, read through the following articles to learn more:
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What to Do Before Your Probate Court Date
Probate court can seem like a lengthy and daunting process to navigate, but it does not have to be. The best way to counteract any difficulties is to prepare yourself (and your probate documents) before appearing in court. In fact, there are a few steps you can take before attending probate court to help the process along:
Notify Beneficiaries and Creditors: The first step in the probate process is to alert any heirs or beneficiaries about the deceased. You should also notify creditors, or anyone who has a financial interest in the Estate. Some states will even require you to publish a notice in the local newspaper.
Inventory Assets and Belongings: When you are ready, take stock of any assets and belongings of the Estate. This includes retirement accounts, real estate, stocks and bonds, valuables, other investments, and any bank accounts. You may need to have some items appraised during this time, especially if the deceased owned any collections or a large amount of jewelry.
Handle Unpaid Debts: As you review the belongings and assets, note any unpaid bills or debts the person may have had. You will typically need to pay off these costs using the funds of the Estate. This could include outstanding utility bills, rent, mortgage payments, taxes and more.
Distribute Inheritances: There are certain belongings and assets you may be able to distribute to heirs and beneficiaries before probate court, such as personal belongings and mementos. Be aware that some states will have limits on what can be handed out without court approval, particularly before all outstanding debts have been paid.
Submit Records to the Court: After you have gathered all assets and paid any debts, you will need to submit receipts and records to the probate court. This will lead to the Estate being closed, and in turn mark the end of your role as the executor.
Probate Checklist - What to Gather & What to Bring
Now that you have an overview of the probate process, it is crucial to learn what documents are needed for probate court. There is a substantial amount of paperwork necessary to validate the Will, determine how assets are distributed, settle any disputes, pay off any remaining debts, and ultimately close the Estate. Gathering this information can be challenging for several reasons, however knowing which documents you need can help guide you through the process. The following checklist should help you prepare for your court date, though keep in mind that not every document will apply:
Last Will and Testament
Revocable Living Trust Documents
Contact Information for Heirs and Beneficiaries
Pre Nuptial or Post Nuptial Agreements
Federal and State Income and Gift Tax Returns for the last three years
Life Insurance Policies
Financial Account Statements
Real Estate Deeds and Vehicle Titles
Business Agreement Documents
Appraisal Valuations for High-Value Belongings (Art, Jewelry, Collectibles)
List of other known Assets
List of Known Debts
List of Medical and Funeral Expenses
There are numerous reasons why you may have to appear in probate court: a large Estate, a nonexistent Will, disputes over assets and beneficiaries, or even just routine state laws. Whatever the reason is, the best thing you can do to prepare is review the process and gather any required probate documents. Gathering the necessary information can be emotionally challenging -- especially right after the loss of a loved one. However, the probate checklist above aims to guide you as much as possible.