Probate courts are specialized courts that deal specifically with matters pertaining to wills, estates, trusts and family law matters such as guardianships and adoptions. In some jurisdictions, they have other names such as “Orphan’s Court.” The law and operation of probate courts are different in each state; however, there are general functions and procedures that are similar or the same throughout the country. Probate courts are best known for the administration of the probate process, which includes the steps that must be taken in order to allow funds to be paid and property to be transferred after the death of a named party.
There is always a person in charge of the administration and distribution of the decedent’s estate, not necessarily a member of the family. If there is no will, a person may petition to become the administrator of the estate. If there is a will, it often names an executor to take this role. The administrator or executor is responsible for collecting the assets of the decedent’s estate, paying debts and expenses and distributing the estate to the proper persons, as well as contacting any parties who have an interest in the proceedings—be it for the purpose of transferring assets or to contest the will itself.
The first step is that if there is a will, it must be submitted to the court and shown to be valid. What makes a will “valid” varies from state to state. For instance, some states require a certain amount of witnesses or allow videotaped wills, while others do not have these requirements. It is usually a simple matter of showing validity, unless the will is challenged, which opens the door to a full range of issues. Next, the administrator or executor identifies and inventories the property of the decedent. Depending on the circumstances, this may be an exhaustive process, taking several months, or the will may have already accomplished this task.
Following this, the administrator or executor has the property assessed to determine its value. With this value calculated, the administrator or executor pays the debts of the estate, as well as any estate or transfer taxes that are required to be paid by the state. These debts include funeral costs, attorney’s fees and court costs. Finally, the executor pays monies or distributes property to the beneficiaries under the will in accordance with the will, as long as there are sufficient funds, while the administrator does the same under the intestacy laws of the state.
The probate court has several tasks to help supervise and facilitate the probate process. Aside from the aforementioned appointment of an administrator, the court provides a measure of oversight to the administrator or executor to ensure that this person does not take advantage of the process to benefit themselves. If they overstep the boundaries of their powers, the court may remove them from the position.
In questions of validity of a will, the court interprets the document in accordance with the laws of the state in order to reach a legally binding decision either upholding, modifying or revoking the will. The court additionally requires meticulous filing of records documenting the results of the tasks of the administrator or executor. After reviewing these records, monies and property may not be disbursed until the court allows it. Finally, it is the court that closes the matter; the proceedings in their entirety do not end until the judge rules that they have ended.
In summation, the probate court is the watchdog of the probate process. It resolves confusion over the legal interpretation of the will, approves of the routine matters that are necessities of the process and guarantees that the administrator or executor do not go beyond their judicially appointed powers.
Andersen & Bloom, Fundamentals of Trusts and Estates. (3d ed. LexisNexis 2007).
Black’s Law Dictionary (Bryan A. Garner ed., 8th ed., West 2004).