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Probate is the court-supervised process by which your Probate Assets are distributed to the beneficiaries in your Will according to the provisions in your Will. If you do not have a Will, the probate process allows for the distribution of your Probate Assets pursuant to the laws of Intestate Succession.
The probate process normally begins when the person you nominate as Executor in your Will files a petition for probate with the Court and schedules a Court hearing. In the petition the Executor asks the Court for a determination that the Will is valid. The Executor also asks the Court for the legal authority to handle your probate estate. If you do not have a Will some other interested party must come forward and ask the Court for the legal authority to handle your probate estate. This person is called an Administrator and is usually the decedent's surviving spouse or child.
Notice of the petition and hearing date is published in the newspaper and sent to interested parties such as the beneficiaries under your Will and your heirs. If no one objects to the Petition for Probate the Court will appoint the Executor and give him/her the legal authority to collect and distribute your assets. The written document by which the Court confers such authority on the Executor is called Letters Testamentary. The Executor can then collect your Probate Assets by taking his or her Letters Testamentary and presenting them at the institutions holding your Probate Assets, such as banks and brokerage firms.
Once the Executor has collected your Probate Assets he or she is required to file an inventory and appraisal of such assets with the Court. If the probate estate contains non-cash assets, such as a house or valuable antiques, the Court will appoint an independent party, called a probate referee, to appraise such assets.
In addition to collecting and appraising your assets, the Executor must give notice to your creditors of the probate proceedings. Creditors have an opportunity to file claims for payment. If the claim is valid the Executor will accept the claim and pay the creditor. If the claim is not valid the Executor may reject the claim. If the Executor rejects the claim the creditor may contest the Executor's decision by asking the Court to overrule the Executor and grant the claim.
The Executor's job also entails working with an accountant to make sure that all necessary tax returns are followed, such as the decedent's final income tax return, fiduciary tax returns, and, if necessary, an estate tax return (otherwise known as the "death" tax return.)
During the probate process the Executor is required to keep a formal record of his or her actions and prepare periodic written reports of such actions for the Court. These written reports are called accountings and must be filed with, and approved by, the Court. Once the Court finds that all your debts, taxes and expenses are paid, it will issue an Order For Distribution and authorize the Executor to distribute the remaining property to the beneficiaries in your Will.
If you hold assets in any of the following ways the assets will generally not be included in your probate estate.
Institutions holding these types of assets must follow your instructions and transfer the assets to the persons you have directed. Examples of assets that may pass as such are brokerage accounts, bank accounts and United States Savings Bonds.
If you have given instructions to the plan administrator prior to your death as to who gets your assets upon your death, the plan administrator will not need an order from the probate court in order to transfer the assets to your designated beneficiaries.
If you have designated a beneficiary on these assets the insurance company may pay your designated beneficiary without a probate court order.
Assets placed in your Revocable Living Trust will be distributed according to the terms of your trust and do not need to be probated.
Assets held as a joint tenant pass to the surviving joint tenant and not pursuant to the terms of your Will.