When you create a will, you give directions to the people you leave behind indicating who should manage your estate and who should inherit from you. But the terms of your will are not automatically effective; the court must accept your will before anyone can act under its terms. In Michigan, probate courts oversee the administration of your estate.
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Admitting the Will
A Michigan court gains authority to oversee your estate’s administration when someone, typically the person named in your will as the executor, admits the will to the probate court in the county where you lived. The court must first determine whether your will is valid because it cannot direct distribution of property under an invalid will. To be valid, a will must comply with all formalities required by Michigan law. For example, you must have been at least 18 years old at the time you drafted the will.
Michigan probate courts also hear will contests, or challenges, brought by interested persons such as those who might inherit from you if your will is declared invalid. For example, your son could challenge your will if there is evidence your daughter unduly influenced you to include terms favorable to her. During a will contest, the probate court may hear witness testimony and review written evidence to determine your will’s validity. If the contest is successful, the probate court may set aside a portion of the will or the entire document. If an earlier valid will is available, the court could admit that earlier version in place of a later, invalid version.
Appointing a Representative
Once the court establishes the validity of the will, it appoints someone to act as your estate’s administrator, called the personal representative, or executor. Generally, a Michigan court will appoint the person you named in your will. Your personal representative cannot act without first receiving “letters of authority” from the court, but after receiving this authority, he can access your accounts, pay your bills and settle the estate’s affairs. Financial institutions may ask to see the letters of authority from the court before allowing your personal representative to access your accounts.
Your personal representative must first marshal your assets, meaning he must gather your assets, secure them and value them. Then, he must pay any charges against your estate, including your funeral expenses, taxes and debts. After all expenses and debts of the estate are paid, he can distribute the remaining assets to the beneficiaries you named in your will. Depending on the size and contents of your estate, the probate court may heavily supervise your personal representative’s actions or provide little input.