Probate is the court-supervised process of authenticating a decedent's Last Will and Testament (if any); locating and determining the value of the decedent's assets; paying the decedent's final bills, estate taxes and/or inheritance taxes (if any); and then distributing what's left (if anything) to the decedent's rightful heirs.
Steps Required to Probate an Estate
Each U.S. state has a specific set of laws that determine the steps required to probate an estate. These laws are referred to as the state "Probate Code," "Succession Laws," or something similar.
While the laws governing probate vary from state to state, in general the following steps will be required to settle an estate through the probate process:
- Authenticating the Last Will and Testament - If the decedent left a will, then the probate judge will need to confirm that the will is in fact the final, valid will signed by the decedent.
- Appointing a Personal Representative - The probate judge will need to appoint a Personal Representative, also called an Executor or Administrator, to oversee probate on behalf of the estate.
- Locating the decedent's assets - Once appointed, the Personal Representative will need to locate and protect all of the decedent's assets.
- Determining date of death values - The Personal Representative will need to determine the date of death values for all of the decedent's assets through account statements and appraisals.
- Identifying known creditors - The Personal Representative will need to determine all of the decedent's creditors and notify them of the death.
- Publishing a notice in the newspaper - The Personal Representative will need to publish a notice in a local newspaper to notify any unknown creditors of the decedent's death.
- Paying bills - The Personal Representative will need to pay all of the decedent's final bills.
- Filing income tax returns - The Personal Representative will need to file the decedent's final income tax return (federal and state, if applicable) and an estate income tax return with regard to income earned during probate (federal Form 1041 and a state return, if applicable).
- Determining estate tax liability - The Personal Representative will need to determine if any death taxes (federal and/or state) will be due, and if so, then file the applicable death tax returns.
- Paying estate taxes and/or inheritance taxes - If any death taxes will be due, then the Personal Representative will need to raise the cash necessary to pay the taxes and then pay them in a timely manner (usually within nine months of the decedent's date of death); and
- Distributing what's left to the beneficiaries - Only after all of the steps listed above have been completed can the Personal Representative distribute what is left of the decedent's assets to the beneficiaries named in the decedent's Last Will (if any), or, if the decedent did not sign a Last Will, then to the decedent's heirs at law.
Step by Step Guides
For more information about probate, refer to the following step by step guides: