How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?
A Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that is used in probate court, if a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.” The probate process proves the will is valid.
Probate is a judicial or court proceeding, where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The executor of the will (now called the Personal Representative in Massachusetts) is to manage the probate assets and then report to the judge.
Without a will, a similar court proceeding takes place, but the distribution of the decedent’s assets are not controlled by the decedent but rather the state’s intestacy statute or the state’s rule book. So, if you have not spoken with a relative for many years, and you did not execute a will during your lifetime, you may find that the intestacy laws will distribute your assets to your favorite and not-so-favorite relatives.
To start the probate proceeding, the Personal Representative completes and submits a probate petition with the probate court. Some PRs do this on their own, but most hire an estate planning attorney to help. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.
The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child receives notice and learns they have been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.
A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.
The will contest can be resolved in two ways: with a settlement between the parties involved, or with a jury trial. It is always possible that the disinherited person could prevail and be awarded any amount of the inheritance, regardless of what the decedent said in their will.
In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. Only when the court gives the all clear does the judge issue what is called a “Letter of Authority” which allows the executor to start the process of distributing funds. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries.
Can a will contest, or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts, so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.
By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.
Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”