Probate Process – What Happens to Your Assets When You Die?

Ellena Arroyo

The probate process begins when a person dies and can continue for months or years. The first step of probate involves submitting an original copy of the decedent’s death certificate to the probate court. If the decedent died intestate (without a Will); an estate executor must be appointed to initiate the probate process.
The initial phase of the probate process involves verification of the decedent’s Last Will and Testament. If there is no Will, a probate judge appoints the estate Administrator and advises them of their duties.
In most cases, a family member is designated to this important position. If no family members exist or choose not to accept the role, a judge can appoint a close personal friend, attorney or estate planner to oversee estate matters.
The appointed Administrator is usually required to appear in front of the probate judge. Estate executors must be at least 18 years of age and never convicted of a felony offense. Probate duties will be discussed with the probate executor to ensure all documents are properly filed and assets distributed according to probate laws.
Once the estate has been filed through probate court, all information pertaining to the estate becomes a matter of public record. Most states require the estate administrator to place a public notice in local newspapers. This is necessary to inform potential heirs and creditors of the decedent’s death.
Throughout the probate process estate executors are required to inventory and appraise assets subject to probate. These include real estate and financial holdings such as bank accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and outstanding debts owed to the decedent.
Valuable personal belongings such as art collections, jewelry, antiques and collectibles generally require appraisals conducted by a professional appraisal. Household furnishings, appliances, clothing, knick-knacks and items valued under $500 typically do not need to be appraised. However, these items do need to be listed within an inventory list.
The decedent’s estate is responsible for paying all expenses related to the probate process. Estate administrators are never responsible for expenses related to settling the estate. If the estate does not possess sufficient funds to pay outstanding debts, creditors cannot pursue the estate executor for payment.
Probate personal representatives are entitled to compensation for duties performed. Each individual state regulates compensation paid to administrators. Probate administration fees can be paid hourly, as a flat fee, or as a percentage of the estate’s value.
Estate assets cannot be distributed to designated beneficiaries until the probate process is completed. Oftentimes, estate administrators are forced to sell assets in order to pay debts associated with the estate. Assets can be sold through estate auctions, probate liquidators or to individual buyers.

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