Money and GavelWhen someone dies, the property left behind is known as a probate estate. The probate court and the estate's personal representative administer the distribution of estate property to creditors and heirs. If the deceased left a valid will, the estate property is generally distributed according to its terms. If there is no valid will, estate property is distributed according to a state law known as intestacy law.

Anyone Can Initiate a Probate Case

To open a probate case, you must file the death certificate, the deceased's will (if there is one), and a formal probate petition with the probate court of the county where the deceased lived. The court will then hold a hearing to appoint the personal representative, who will administer the estate during the probate process. If there is a will, the court will probably appoint the personal representative, or executor, named in the will. The personal representative's first task is to notify creditors and heirs of the probate proceedings. This may require publication of a notice in a newspaper.

Estate Property Must Be Inventoried

An estate's personal representative must inventory all of the deceased's property, including any money owed by or to the decedent. You may be required to exclude certain property, such as trust property, that is not subject to probate. You must have all non-cash assets appraised to determine their fair value, create a written inventory of estate property, and file the inventory with the probate court.

Estate Creditors Must Be Satisfied

You must pay all debts owed by the estate, including your own administrative expenses. You are responsible for paying all legitimate creditor claims and rejecting any unreasonable claims. You must also file the deceased's final tax return and pay any taxes due on the estate. In addition, you must collect any debts owed to the estate. To perform these functions, you will use documents issued by the probate court that establish your authority to administer the estate. Except for any living allowance granted to the deceased's dependents, you may not distribute estate property to heirs until all accounts are settled.

A Waiting Period Applies

You cannot distribute property to heirs until a waiting period expires. The purpose of the waiting period is to give creditors time to make claims against the estate. Once the waiting period expires, you may distribute either cash or property to heirs, unless the will states otherwise. For example, you may transfer title to a house to an heir, or you may sell the house and give the money to the heir. Either with or without a will, you must distribute property as directed by the probate court.

A Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding the probate process is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a probate lawyer.

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