What are the Stages of Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. How exactly does the probate process work?

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an estate planning attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

Suggested Key Terms: Probate, Estate Planning Attorney, Executor, Petition, Assets, Beneficiaries, Fiduciary, Will, Administrator, Jointly With Rights of Survivorship, Real Estate, Trusts,

Can a Transaction Occur if One Spouse is Incapacitated?

An elderly married couple wished to sell their home, but they had a big problem. The notary public refused to notarize the wife’s signature, because she clearly did not understand the document she was being asked to sign. Because there was no power of attorney in place that could have authorized her husband to represent her, the transaction came to a halt.

This situation, as described in Lake Country News’ article “When one spouse becomes incapacitated,” is not an uncommon occurrence. The couple needed to petition the court for an order authorizing the transaction. When community property is concerned and one spouse is competent while the second is not, the competent spouse may ask the court for permission to conduct the transaction.

The request in California requires the following:

The incapacitated spouse must have an examination by a physician and a capacity evaluation form must be filed with the court. This is the same as a conservator proceeding.

The court must appoint a “guardian ad litem” to represent the incapacitated spouse’s interests. The person might be an adult child, or an attorney. That person must then file a written report with their recommendation to the court.

Next, the transaction must involve the couple’s community property. The order may affect additional separate property interests in the same transaction. If there is no community property, it is permissible for the well spouse to change some of the well spouse’s private property into community property to meet the requirements for community property.

The transactions must also be for one of several allowed purposes, including the best interests of the spouses or their estates, or for the care or support of either spouse.

In the example that starts this article, the purpose was to authorize the sale of their home, so they could move out of state to live with their children. Another example could be to transfer property, so an incapacitated spouse may become eligible for government benefits.

Finally, the notice of hearing and a copy of the petition must be served on all the incapacitated spouse’s children and grandchildren. Any of these individuals are permitted to object and could set the proceedings back months or even years.

In Massachusetts, there is no community property however, it is very important that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney if this situation arises.

How much easier would it be to simply meet with an estate planning attorney long before there are any health or mental capacity issues and have a power of attorney document created for each of the spouses?

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have your estate plan, which includes a power of attorney document, and have all these important documents created before you need them.

Reference: Lake Country News (July 27, 2019) “When one spouse becomes incapacitated”