Although common law required different instruments for bequeathing real and personal property, current law eliminates the distinction. A modern testator devises all her property under one will and names an executor to steer the will through probate. The executor administers the will, collecting assets, locating heirs, paying estate debts and distributing estate assets. The probate court supervises this process, requiring regular inventories, valuations and reports. An executor owes the highest possible duty of care to the estate heirs which precludes any dishonesty or self-dealing.
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Determine which court has probate jurisdiction over the last will and testament of the deceased. Generally, this is the probate court in the county where the deceased kept her primary residence before death. Primary residence is a legal term, determined largely on a person's intent, so it is not always easy to ascertain. Look first in the county in which the testator lived just before death. Call the court and ask whether the will is in probate there. If not, try other counties in which the deceased kept homes.
Go to the appropriate court during business hours and find the probate clerk's office. In some jurisdictions, the civil file window handles all civil files including probate. In others, a separate family law window manages probate files. Provide the clerk with the probate file number, if you have it. If not, provide the full name and date of death of the deceased. The clerk will locate the file and instruct you whether to review it at the window or in a separate reading area.
Look through the probate file. Among the early filings is a petition filed by the executor asking the court to accept probate of the will and to grant her something called "letters testamentary," which constitutes permission to administer the estate. Obtain the name, address and phone number of the executor from this document. Read further to ascertain whether the court issued letters testamentary and whether any heir challenged the executor. If the court dismissed the executor, note the name and phone number of a successor executor.
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