Which Court Oversees Inheritances?

by Jeff Franco J.D./M.A./M.B.A.

If you are named as a beneficiary in someone’s will or are eligible to receive part of a decedent’s estate under an intestacy law because a will doesn’t exist, you may need to wait until the probate process is complete before receiving your inheritance. States have special courts, usually called a probate or surrogate court, that have exclusive jurisdiction to oversee the distribution of inheritances.

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State Probate Process

The underlying purpose of imposing the probate process on estates is to ensure that a decedent’s property is distributed in accordance with his will or, when no will exists, pursuant to the state’s intestacy laws – that provides which family members have superior claims to the estate property. Generally, the probate court or its equivalent will oversee inheritances by establishing the validity of the decedent’s will. The court will ensure that an accurate inventory of all estate property is submitted by the appropriate representative of the estate, that all claims against the estate are paid before inheritances are distributed, and that all heirs and beneficiaries receive their inheritances.

Probate Court Venue

State probate courts have jurisdiction over all matters that relate to inheritances. However, there is usually more than one court in each state and it’s necessary to determine which specific court is the proper venue to oversee the distribution of inheritances. Typically, the probate process should be initiated in the probate court located in the same county where the decedent lived. In some cases where the decedent has property in a county where he didn't reside, it might also be appropriate for the probate court in that county to oversee the distribution of inheritances.

Transfer & Multiple Proceedings

It isn’t uncommon for more than one probate court to have jurisdiction to oversee the distribution of a decedent’s estate. For example, if a decedent owns two homes – each located in different counties of the same state – the probate court of either county can oversee the probate process. However, only one court can oversee the probate process, and many states provide that the court in which probate first commences shall be responsible for overseeing the entire estate, regardless of where the property is located. But keep in mind that probate court judges can transfer the probate proceedings to the court of a different county if it finds that doing so is in the best interest of justice, such as when all heirs or beneficiaries live in a different county.

Inheriting Without Probate

One thing to remember is that there are situations where it isn’t necessary for any probate court to oversee your inheritance. In Oregon, for example, probate doesn’t apply to some property the decedent owns jointly. This typically includes real estate that the decedent owned jointly with rights of survivorship to the other owner. Oregon law also eliminates the need for probate when the decedent leaves behind a small estate of personal belongings and household items.