A valid will explains a person's wishes for distributing her property after her death, and often nominates a personal representative to carry out those wishes. A probate court guides the estate settlement, and the process may require more than one court appearance by the personal representative or administrator. Although the process is similar across the country, check local court rules to learn your state's requirements.
Petition to Open the Estate
The personal representative or a family member initiates probate proceedings by presenting certain documents to the probate court. Documents may include the will, death certificate, a petition form and an application for acceptance as personal representative.
Preparation for Hearing
The personal representative is often required to notify interested parties before the first probate hearing, and publishes her intent to administer the estate in a local newspaper for a period of time determined by the court. Family members, beneficiaries and known creditors are notified in writing by mail. If required, she obtains bond, which is a type of insurance against mishandling the estate. She then files a petition for the initial probate hearing. Some states require personal representatives to secure legal counsel.
The initial hearing is conducted once a reasonable amount of time -- as determined by the state -- has passed after interested persons have been notified. The will may be read to the interested parties at the hearing. If a person contests the will, separate procedures temporarily halt the probate process until the issue is resolved. If important instructions are accidentally left out of the will, the deceased may be considered partially intestate; the probate judge may explain state rules and how they apply to govern those omissions. The judge then officially approves or appoints a personal representative, and gives him letters testamentary, or a document that gives the personal representative authority to manage the estate.
The personal representative has a great deal of work to accomplish before the final hearing to close the estate. She must inventory the deceased's property, pay debts, file tax documents, list gifts to beneficiaries or heirs, and maintain a complete accounting of all assets and activity. Some states require her to periodically give copies of those statements to the court. She may be required to provide those statements and a copy of the will to each beneficiary or heir. A beneficiary is a person or entity named in the will to receive a gift. An heir is a person in the deceased's family who may inherit if there is no will or if no provision is given in the will for him, and there is any excess property after gift distribution.
The final hearing happens after accounting statements and will copies are sent to interested parties. The judge reviews details and approves the final distribution if there are no errors that require correction. The personal representative then distributes gifts or inheritance to beneficiaries or heirs, and petitions the court to close the estate. After closure, the personal representative is relieved of all duties.