Probate is a court-supervised process that involves the collection, inventory and distribution of property owned by a deceased person after death. The person in charge of handling the estate is known as the personal representative and is either named in the will or appointed by the court. Whether or not a specific type of property will need to go through probate depends both on the nature of the property and how title is held at death.
Overview of Probate
Generally, all property that passes according to a will or by state intestacy laws must be probated in Wisconsin. Intestacy simply means that no valid will is present and instead property is distributed according to a rigid set of rules that prioritizes heirs based on their legal relationship to the deceased person. In either case, any property owned by the deceased person that does not pass automatically will need to be probated. An exception to this rule applies if the estate is valued at $50,000 or less. In this case, the heir would simply file paperwork directly with the individual or institution holding the assets; the property does not go through probate.
Typical assets that are subject to probate include jewelry, electronics and other personal property. In addition, cash held in bank accounts, business interests in partnerships, securities, and life insurance proceeds made payable to the estate also fall under the definition of probate property. However, an exception to this broad rule applies if the property is deposited into a trust. In this case, the property is considered owned by the trust and will be distributed by an appointed trustee according to the terms of the trust after the decedent's death. For that reason, assets that would ordinarily fall under the category of probate property can become non-probate property if transferred into a trust.
If you share ownership of any real estate, the type of ownership indicated on the deed will control whether the property needs to be probated. If you own real estate with others as tenants in common, your percentage of ownership interest will pass by either will or law and need to be probated. By contrast, if the ownership has a right of survivorship, such as a joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety, your interest will automatically pass to the remaining owners and will not need to be probated.
If you owned automobiles at the time of death, whether they need to be probated will depend on whether you left a surviving spouse or domestic partner. In Wisconsin, a surviving spouse or partner can receive an automatic transfer of up to five vehicles, or any number of vehicles if they are older than 20 years. All additional cars under 20 years old will need to be probated, unless the estate is small enough to qualify for the simplified administration. In that case, the heir entitled to the vehicle simply presents a form to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and pays a transfer fee.