The Six Steps of Probate

by Ted Ricasa on May 10, 2014

a collage of words and phrases such as When someone dies, his or her estate and belongings enter probate. Depending on a number of factors this can either be either a relatively short or lengthy process. If you have been named the executor of the estate, you will need to oversee all six steps of the probate process. Understanding what these steps entail can help ensure the process runs smoothly.

Step 1: Take inventory of the decedent’s assets and estate planning documents

As executor of an estate, your first responsibility in probate is to determine whether the decedent left a last will and testament, revocable living trust, and funerary instructions. You will also be tasked with locating important documents related to the decedent’s estate, including life insurance policies, auto titles, stocks and bonds, and bank statements, for example. The court will expect you to provide the decedent’s three most recent income tax returns.

Step 2: Open the Probate Estate

Having gathered all necessary documentation, you will enlist the services of an estate lawyer. Together, you will open the estate with the court. Although costly, a lawyer will guide you through the process and help you to make responsible decisions on behalf of the estate. You will not be expected to pay out of pocket. Instead, the attorney’s fees will be deducted from the estate.

Step 3: Determine the Value of Assets

Determining the total value of the decedent’s assets at the date of death is one of the lengthiest steps in the process. You will be expected to find the value of any checking and savings accounts with financial institutions, as well as the value of real estate, vehicles, personal effects, and jewelry. You cannot suggest an arbitrary value, as you are required by the court to have all assets professionally appraised. If the estate is subject to state or federal taxes, you must also seek valuation for non-probate assets, too.

Step 4: Full the Decedent’s Obligations and Expenses

Any fees and expenses incurred in administering the estate will be paid by the estate. All debts held by the decedent must be repaid, but only if they are determined to be legitimate. Other expenses drawn against the estate include accounting fees, insurance premiums, utility bills, mortgage payments, and legal fees. There are also credit card bills, loans, and other recurring expenses to consider.

Step 5: Pay Applicable Taxes

If your state levies an estate tax, you will be expected to have the paperwork prepared. Your lawyer will help you with this, or you could hire an accountant. Federal estate taxes may apply as well. On behalf of the decedent, you will be expected to prepare and file the decedent’s income taxes for the year. It may be necessary to submit IRS Form 706, the federal estate tax return.

Step 6: Distribute Remaining Assets to Beneficiary

It is only when these steps have been completed that the executor can disburse any assets to the named beneficiaries. Hopefully there will be no conflicts between heirs, but this is a very real possibility—one that could drag the process out by many months.

Probate is a complex and lengthy affair, and it is not unusual for any one of these six steps to require a month or more to complete. Many people find that selling a home in probate is much easier and allows them to move on more quickly. Instead of waiting for months, you need only wait for 10 days before the cash from the sale of the home is deposited directly into your checking account. Not all state probate courts allow you to sell a home in probate, but we can help you determine whether or not your property is eligible. 

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