Probate is the legal process that takes place after someone dies of proving the validity of a will or establishing who is entitled to receive the decedent’s property under state intestate succession laws if there is no will. The probate process is handled by the local surrogate’s court and governed by state law. Probate involves paperwork and court appearances by lawyers, which costs money.
As a general rule, a will has no legal effect until it is probated. Probate includes proving in surrogate’s court that a decedent’s will is valid, identifying and collecting the decedent’s property (also referred to as the decedent’s estate), paying debts and taxes of the estate, and distributing the remaining property as the will (or state intestate law, if there is no will) directs. In effect, probate is the process that enables heirs to receive property that is rightfully theirs.
Advantages of Avoiding the Probate Process
Wills and probate proceedings are matters of public record. If you would like to keep your affairs private, and prefer that people don’t know how your estate was distributed, avoiding probate through a trust or other mechanism is the only way to do so.
The probate process can be complicated and time-consuming, so it may take several years to completely resolve everything. Typically, assets are frozen and unavailable to beneficiaries (including the surviving spouse) for a period of time without prior court approval. Avoiding probate can speed up the process of settling your estate.
Probate costs, including attorney’s fees, can be expensive. This is especially true if you own real estate in a different state, because probate proceedings would be required in both states. A trust can help to correct this problem.
“What Is Probate?” is discussed in more detail in my book “Nothing But The Truth About Estate Planning, Probate And Living Trusts”. Download your copy here: Nothing But The Truth About Estate Planning, Probate And Living Trusts by Larry Israeloff CPA & tax attorney.