Most people don’t understand what probate is and in most of my client meetings I explain what probate actually means. Very simply probate is the court proceeding assets go through to be transferred out of a deceased person’s name. That’s about the only simple thing about probate.
The first thing to know is not all assets must go through probate in ordered to be transferred effectively. If done correctly, an asset with another’s name on it or with beneficiaries listed should not have to go through probate. Beneficiaries are generally automatically done on retirement plans or life insurance policies, but most assets can have a beneficiary listed. On vehicles they’re called “transfer on deaths” (TODs) and on bank accounts they may be stated as “payable on death” (POD). Any asset that has a competent, living adult listed as a beneficiary or co-owner should (for the most part) avoid probate.
However, when plans haven’t been made and beneficiaries haven’t been listed, that’s when the probate court gets involved. Even if there is a will, those assets must go through probate.
There are many different ways for assets to go through probate, but the two I use most often are the small estate affidavit and the full probate proceeding.
A small estate affidavit can be used when the assets that do not have another person’s name on the title or as a beneficiary total $40,000 or less. This process has minimal expenses, but can take a few months to complete. If real estate is involved, any proceeds from a sale may be held in escrow for a year from the date of the deceased’s death. However, attorney’s fee and court fees are much less than full probate. A full probate proceeding, at a minimum, takes 7 months, but often time takes much longer. There are also minimum attorney’s fees based on the size of the estate.
In both proceedings, an attorney is required to file the initial paperwork with the court. Thus attorney fees and court fees start at the very beginning. For a small estate affidavit the assets must be listed in the initial filing and if the value is not known, an appraisal may be necessary. Once the court has accepted the filing, a bond may be required. A bond is like an insurance policy ensuring that the creditors and heirs or beneficiaries of the estate will receive what is legally theirs. The bond amount will be dependent upon the amount of assets and can be very expensive or hard to obtain for some families. If the deceased had a will, this requirement can be waived in the will.
In a full probate case, the next step is for the court to appoint a personal representative. This is the person, also known as an executor, who is responsible for selling and distributing assets. The court may grant independent administration where the personal representative may make some decisions without court approval or it may proceed with supervised administration where the court’s approval is required for any action by the personal representative. Supervised administration will often take more time and cost more in attorney’s fees. Independent administration can also be authorized through a will.
If the assets are over $15,000 of value, publication is also necessary to inform creditors and potential heirs of the probate estate.
Next in the full probate proceeding, the personal representative is required to file an inventory detailing all of the assets, which again, often includes appraisals. Once the inventory has been filed, assets may be sold. Six months and ten days after the first publication the estate may be settled by accounting for any debts that must be paid and the amounts owed to the beneficiaries of the estate.
In either proceeding, there are a ranging set of fees, due to the court, attorneys, bonds, publication, appraisals, etc. It’s generally worth avoiding when possible through advancing planning with an attorney. However, it’s obviously not always possible to avoid. So, if you’ve lost someone and have assets that are still in his or her name, probate in some form is likely necessary.
If you think probate is necessary, there’s often no rush (certainly not once the court is involved). The main date to note, is that a will must be admitted to probate within a year of death. So, if there is a will involved, I would recommend reaching out to an attorney well before that year has passed. However, for most families, probate may be considered on your timeframe. With that in mind, I recommend reaching out to an attorney with any questions, but waiting until you are certain there are no other assets in the deceased’s name before filing with probate.