The court process by which a Will is proved valid or invalid. The legal process wherein the estate of a decedent is administered.
When a person dies, his or her estate must go through probate, which is a process overseen by a probate court. If the decedent leaves a will directing how his or her property should be distributed after death, the probate court must determine if it should be admitted to probate and given legal effect. If the decedent dies intestate—without leaving a will—the court appoints a Personal Representative to distribute the decedent's property according to the laws of Descent and Distribution. These laws direct the distribution of assets based on hereditary succession.
In general, the probate process involves collecting the decedent's assets, addressing creditors, paying necessary taxes, and distributing property to heirs.
Probate of a Will
The probate of a will means proving its genuineness in probate court. Unless otherwise provided by statute, a will must be admitted to probate before a court will allow the distribution of a decedent's property to the heirs according to its terms.
As a general rule, a will has no legal effect until it is probated. A will should be probated immediately, and no one has the right to suppress it. The person with possession of a will, usually the personal representative or the decedent's attorney, must produce it. Statutes impose penalties for concealing or destroying a will or for failing to produce it within a specified time.
Probate proceedings are usually held in the state in which the decedent had domicile or permanent residence at the time of death. If, however, the decedent owned real property in a another state, the will disposing of these assets must also be probated in that state. To qualify as a will in probate, an instrument must be of testamentary character and comply with all statutory requirements. A will that has been properly executed by a competent person—the testator—as required by law is entitled to be probated.
As a general rule, the original document must be presented for probate. Probate of a copy or duplicate of a will is not permitted unless the absence of the original is satisfactorily explained to the court. If a properly proved copy or duplicate of a will that has been lost or destroyed is presented to the court, it may be admitted to probate. A thorough and diligent search for the will is necessary before a copy can be probated as a lost will.
A codicil, which is a supplement to a will, is entitled to be probated together with the will it modifies, if it is properly executed according to statute.
A probate proceeding may involve either formal or informal procedures. Small estates may benefit from an informal and abbreviated probate proceeding. However, a probate proceeding may be switched from informal to formal during the course of administration, if issues so warrant.
The probate process begins when the personal representative files with the clerk of the probate court a copy of the death certificate along with the will and a petition to admit the will to probate and to grant letters testamentary, which authorize him or her to distribute the estate. Although the personal representative usually files the probate petition, it can be filed by any person who has a pecuniary interest in the will.
Guardianship of Minor Children
Wills often contain instructions on who should be appointed legal guardian of the decedent's minor children. The probate court may investigate the qualifications of the proposed guardian before granting an order of appointment. When a will does not contain a guardianship provision, the court itself must determine, based on the best interests of the children, who should be appointed guardian.