Under state law, all property titled solely in the name of a deceased owner must be submitted for probate unless the value of the assets are below the threshold to qualify for the state's small estate non-probate settlement disposition. Probated property is managed either by an executor named in a valid will or by an administrator appointed by the probate court. State law usually requires timely notification of named beneficiaries, and all parties who may have an interest in the decedent's property.
Function of the Probate Court
State probate courts, also called surrogates' courts, deal with many issues besides wills and estates. They may issue marriage licenses, preside over adoptions, conduct jury trials to settle disputes and supervise guardianships and conservatorships. However, the court's primary purpose is to protect the interests of decedents and rightful beneficiaries. The term "surrogate" conveys the central function of the court to "act in place of another" -- in this case, the decedent -- and "probate" means proving the validity of a will before a court.
Probate Court Responsibilities
In addition to supervising the distribution of property held solely in the decedent's name, the court also oversees guardianships and conservatorships for the living. Guardians are appointed to manage the personal affairs of minors and others who the court has ruled are physically or mentally impaired. Guardians deal with issues such as housing, medical care and maintenance issues. Court-approved conservators handle the financial affairs of children and the incapacitated, and they must make periodic reports to the court detailing their activities.
Executors, personal representatives and administrators are all required by state probate laws to notify beneficiaries named in the decedent's will and any other potential heirs. Creditors must also be notified by letter or via a newspaper notice, and valid claims must be presented within a period specified under state law -- usually three months. Executors must locate, value and sometimes sell probated property and are responsible for filing federal and state tax returns, which may require the services of accountants and appraisers. Executors may hire attorneys to assist them with probate court filings and petitions.
Significance of the Probate Process
The probate courts not only assure proper notification to heirs, but they also supervise every step of the estate settlement process, including will authentication, executor certification, dispute resolution, verification of estate property inventories, creditor payment schedules, tax filings, final distributions and the estate closing. The settlement of probated estates with diverse holdings of personal and real estate property can be a daunting experience for executors. The significance of the probate process is that it is a pathway laid out by the court, which guides the executor to a satisfactory estate closing.