"Probate" refers to the legal process following someone's death, which serves to distribute her assets to family and friends according to the terms of her will. In addition, probate completes any of the decedent's unfinished financial affairs. The procedure to probate a will may vary by state, so it is important to contact your local court to determine how to probate a will in your county.
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Locate the original will. The will is often kept with the decedent's other important documents. Many courts may not recognize a copy of the original will, and will refuse to send the will to probate unless an original is produced. In addition, if the decedent executed multiple wills, make sure you obtain the most recent will.
File the will with the appropriate court in the county where the decedent lived at the time of death. For example, in Florida, the will is submitted to the clerk of the circuit court. Some courts require you to pay a fee at the time you file the will and may not accept the will for probate until the filing fee is paid.
Contact the personal representative named in the will to notify him of the death and the decedent’s wish for him to manage her estate. Many wills contain a clause appointing a representative -- sometimes also called an "executor" -- such as a family member or close friend. It is the representative’s duty to manage the estate, including collecting the assets and paying the decedent’s debts. If a personal representative is not named in the will, the judge will appoint an individual to serve. For example, the decedent’s spouse may act as a personal representative, or the decedent’s heirs may nominate a representative.
Attend the probate hearing. When you file the will with the court clerk, the clerk will assign a date for the probate hearing. During the hearing, the judge will determine whether the will is valid according to the laws of the state. In addition, the judge will confirm the appointment of the personal representative.
Compile a list of the estate, including all assets and debts.
Publish a probate notice, or death notice, in the local newspaper. The death notice will provide the decedent's creditors with notice that the decedent's estate is in probate. Any creditors that believe they have an interest in the estate must file a claim against the estate with the probate court. The time to file a claim varies by state.
Pay the decedent’s debts first, and distribute the remaining assets to the will’s beneficiaries. Most states require the estate administration costs, such as the personal representative's fee and the court costs be paid first, followed by funeral expenses, taxes and debts. Any remaining property after all claims are fulfilled is distributed to the beneficiaries named in the will.
Close the probate estate. Obtain a statement from each beneficiary acknowledging that she received the property she is entitled to according to the will. The probate court may have a specific form to use, like a receipt and waiver form. In addition, the personal representative will need to complete a form declaring the probate estate is complete. File each beneficiary statement and the completion form with the probate court.