Probate is a process to ensure that the law respects the rights of every party to an estate. Foremost, it exists to confirm that the estate is doing the will of the deceased person. Secondarily, it exists to protect the rights of parties with claims against the estate. Finally, it protects the interests of beneficiaries.
To better understand probate, you can break it down into its pieces. A probate lawyer will encourage you to look at these four aspects of the process.
Defining the Decedent's Will
If the person passed with a will, the probate court's goal is to verify that the document is authentic. Likewise, the court will confirm that the version of the will in its possession is the most recent and accurate representation of the decedent's intentions for their estate.
Some people die without wills. In this scenario, the court's job is to, at least to the best of its ability, assess what the deceased person's intentions might have been.
To this end, the court will publish a public notice of the estate in the county where the deceased last lived. The notice ensures that anyone who might have a claim against the estate or concerns about its administration has an opportunity to bring those issues to the court's attention.
A probate judge will appoint an administrator of the estate. Ideally, the decedent wrote a will and named an executor. If the executor is unable to do their duties, the probate system will also determine a successor. Absent an executor, the court will appoint an administrator. If you end up in the executor's role, it's wise to hire a probate attorney for guidance.
Settling Debts and Taxes
The first goal of the estate's administration is to settle all outstanding claims for the decedent's lifetime financial obligations. If they owed bills or had a mortgage, the administration has to decide how to settle them. Likewise, the administration must pay the balance of the person's taxes. In extreme cases, the estate's creditors can force it into bankruptcy to collect as much as they can.
Distribution of Remaining Assets
Presuming there are any assets left at this point, the administration will distribute them according to the will. The executor will contact the named beneficiaries. As necessary, the administration may use funds from the estate to maintain assets like buildings until a beneficiary takes possession. If there are any remaining funds or assets left after satisfying the will, the executor will distribute them at their discretion and then report the outcome of the process to the court.
For more info, contact a local probate attorney.