5 Things to Know About Probate Court

Probate court validates wills, names estate executors or administrators and oversees asset distributions.
Cheryl Lock
By Cheryl Lock 
Edited by Tina Orem

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Probate court is a state or local court that determines if a person’s will is valid, officially names executors or administrators to manage and distribute a deceased person’s assets and oversees the distribution process

Cornell Law School. probate court.
. Some probate courts also handle matters of guardianship and conservatorship.

Every state’s probate court system has its own procedures regarding the probate process, such as estate value limits and filing deadlines. Here are some key things to know.

1. Probate courts often let small estates skip the probate process

You may not have to go through the probate process if your estate is worth less than your state’s size limit. Different states have different limits

American Bar Association. The Probate Process.

For example, in Colorado, "If none of your probatable assets are real estate and all of your probatable assets are less than $80,000, you don’t have to probate,” says attorney Karen Brady, a founding partner with Brady, McFarland & Lord LLC in Arvada, Colorado. “That’s a small estate proceeding."

You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine what your assets are worth and whether they meet your state’s limit.

2. The probate court may look at some assets and not others

In most cases, probate courts will want to look at assets owned solely by the decedent, as well as most bank accounts and real property, according to Roman Aminov, an attorney at the Law Offices of Roman Aminov, PC in Flushing, New York.

However, designations you’ve made on accounts at your financial institutions can matter. “If the asset had a beneficiary — like an investment account, IRA or life insurance policy — or was jointly held with rights of survivorship or was in a trust, it avoids probate,” he says.

Assets that probate courts commonly look at include:

  • Real estate.

  • Bank accounts.

  • Investment accounts.

  • Personal effects.

  • Business interests (like LLCs and corporations).

3. A probate court officially names the estate’s executor or administrator

An executor is a person, bank or trust company that carries out the deceased's wishes and settles the estate. Depending on the state, an executor might also be called a “personal representative” or “administrator” of the estate.

People often name executors in their wills. The probate court ensures that person is eligible to become an executor and then formally appoints them, giving them the power to access the deceased person's accounts and transfer the assets. If you don’t name an executor or the executor you named can’t serve, the court may appoint one.

“I always remind clients that when I die, my next-door neighbor can’t come in and start selling my assets. He doesn’t have legal authority to do that," Brady says. "The court has to come in and appoint someone who can have that authority to manage my affairs. The rules are either in my will or in the laws of how people inherit without a will."

4. Probate courts handle disputes

Probate courts oversee the executor’s work distributing the assets and help tackle any hurdles.

In many cases, going through probate court is required to receive an inheritance, Aminov says. “Typically, clients will discover that their parents forgot to put beneficiaries on an account and realize that they have to go through probate to access the funds,” he says. “Similarly, if a loved one passes with real estate in their name, the probate process is necessary if there is a will.”

Probate courts can also handle conflicts such as a relative contesting the will in cases of unequally distributed inheritance or other disputes.

5. Probate courts set deadlines

The laws of each state dictate how long a person has to file a will with the probate court. Be sure to check with your state court to ensure you file for probate in line with the laws of your state.

  • For example, Colorado requires wills to be filed with the court within 10 days of the death (even if probate isn’t warranted)

    Colorado Judicial Branch. FAQs.

  • In New York, there is no time limit to file the will with the probate court. Aminov says he has handled estate matters decades after a person passed away. 

Frequently asked questions

Probate can take a long time and involve court or legal fees. Before actively trying to avoid probate (by putting your assets in a trust, for example, which can be costly), remember that some assets — such as life insurance and retirement plans with named beneficiaries — generally avoid probate anyway. Also, many states have tried to minimize the cost and length of time that it takes to go through this process.

Most likely, yes, because the probate court must first determine if your will is valid. That means that even if you lay out who gets what in your will, your estate will likely still go through the probate process.

Be sure to update the beneficiaries on your accounts. Assets with beneficiaries named directly on the account typically avoid the probate process, and the beneficiary named directly on the account usually takes precedence over what you write in your will. Ensure that your will covers any assets that don’t have an automatic beneficiary designation.



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