Probate is the process of ensuring a will's validity and carrying out the instructions it contains. The probate process is overseen by a probate court, but the actual work on the estate is typically done by the estate's executor or personal representative. A non-lawyer may file a will to open the probate estate and may serve as executor.
Filing the Will to Begin Probate
A non-lawyer may bring a will to court to begin the probate process. After the testator -- the person who made the will -- dies, the will needs to be filed with the probate court in the county or city where the testator passed away. Most states allow any person who has the will to bring it to the probate court for filing. If the person named in the will as executor or personal representative files the will, she can seek to be officially appointed as executor at the same time.
The person officially named as executor of the will has a number of duties. These include making an inventory of the estate, paying the estate's bills, managing the estate's assets -- liquidating them, if necessary -- and ensuring that the beneficiaries listed in the will get the assets the will leaves them. Although these duties can be carried out by a non-lawyer, many non-lawyer executors find it helpful to consult an attorney, especially if the estate is large or is too small to pay its bills.
Working With the Probate Court
The executor or personal administrator has a duty to work with the probate court, including meeting all court deadlines and showing up for all hearings the court holds regarding the will. A Probate courts are generally prepared to work with non-lawyers, and may be able to offer instructional materials to make the process easier. The executor may also hire an attorney to represent the estate in probate court, if necessary. Usually, such attorneys are paid an amount set by law that comes out of the estate's assets.
Once the will is brought to and filed with the probate court, the beneficiaries listed in the will and the people who would take the estate by law if no will existed have the choice whether or not to file a will contest. A will contest is a lawsuit that challenges whether the will is legal. A non-lawyer serving as executor may defend the will himself in court, or he may hire an attorney at the estate's expense to do so. Because will contests can involve complicated questions of capacity, fraud and forgery, an attorney may be particularly helpful in such cases.