Missouri Probate Court Procedures

By Christine Funk, J.D.

Missouri Probate Court Procedures

By Christine Funk, J.D.

The state of Missouri has 46 judicial circuits, and each of these judicial circuits runs its own court dockets, often with local rules. Each circuit court has several divisions managed by various types of judges, including circuit judges, associate circuit judges, municipal judges, commissioners, and probate judges.

Colonnaded building with arch in background

In each circuit court in the state, the probate division handles a variety of cases. These cases include:

  • Minors' estates
  • Estates of incapacitated individuals
  • Disabled individuals' estates
  • Deceased individuals' estates
  • Litigation regarding trusts
  • Disputes involving transfers to minors
  • Personal custodianships
  • Durable powers of attorney
  • Civil commitment for the mentally ill
  • Civil commitment of those with substance abuse problems
  • Institutionalization of sexually violent predators
  • Cases from other divisions that are related to the administration of a probate estate

Managing Estates

Missouri courts appoint a guardian to care for a minor child who has no parents to care for them. Courts also appoint a guardian for an adult who is incapacitated and therefore unable to care for themselves. The person responsible is a guardian, and the person being cared for is a ward. In the case of a child, a guardian might actually physically care for a child. In the case of an incapacitated adult, the guardian may simply be responsible for arranging for care.

Not every adult in need of assistance needs a guardian. A conservator can manage an older person's financial affairs. When courts assign a conservator, they deliberately leave certain decisions about personal care and comfort to the individual while another responsible adult determines how to spend money.

When someone is of sound mind and body, they may choose to assign power of attorney to a trusted friend or relative. Should they become incapacitated in some way, the named individual can make important decisions for them.

Wills and Trusts

Wills must go through probate in Missouri. This means the executor of a will must account for all assets and identify all debts. First, the estate pays debts. Then the remaining assets transfer to heirs. If there are minor children involved, the court must appoint and approve guardians. If a person dies without a will, a similar process begins. A will dictates who will inherit assets; when someone dies without a will, the law governs who may inherit what and at what percentage.

When someone dies with a revocable living trust, the person's property must transfer from the living trust to the allocated heirs. The successor trustee, much like the executor of a will, manages the trust and oversees the distribution of assets. Deeds and other property must transfer according to the terms of the trust. Children's guardians must be appointed and approved.

Civil Commitment Proceedings

Under the law, there are certain situations wherein a person is subject to civil commitment. This can be due to a person's mental illness, chemical dependency, or meeting the statutory requirements for commitment under sexual predator laws. In each instance, the individual is entitled to due process of law prior to the court ordering a commitment.

If the government fails to meet their burden of proving a civil commitment is necessary and justified by law, the probate court will deny the request. If the burden is met and not refuted by the party the government seeks to commit, the person will be subject to a civil commitment.

Common Areas of Dispute

These types of proceedings often occur without challenge. However, in some circumstances, disputes arise. When this happens, the probate court is responsible for managing the litigation and making rulings consistent with law and statute. Common areas of dispute include:

  • Competing proposed guardians
  • Disagreement about the extent to which a guardian or conservator is necessary in cases involving an adult
  • Invalid wills
  • Disputes over who should have power of attorney
  • Whether a civil commitment is the best course of action in a particular case

Probate courts have a great deal of responsibility. They regularly deal with end-of-life decisions and the aftermath of the death of an individual. Probate courts also wrestle with what to do when someone loses their ability to make decisions for themselves, through incapacitation or through extreme and chronic chemical dependency. They also make decisions about keeping society safe from habitual sex offenders.

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