When a person dies, his estate falls into probate. A probate court oversees the distribution of the estate assets, with or without a will. If no estate executor is named in a will, the probate court appoints an estate administrator, such as the surviving spouse. Probate can take several months or even years to close. The best way for an estate executor or administrator to end probate is to provide the court with all the documentation needed, as soon as possible.
Probate proceedings establish a protocol to distribute estate assets, either under the terms of a will or in the absence of a will. If no will exists and no executor is named, the probate judge appoints an estate administrator. The executor or administrator inventories the estate's assets, obtains appraisals and lists each item's fair market value. The executor or administrator must provide all property deeds, titles and appraisals to the court in order to help determine the cash value of the estate, distribute the assets and end probate.
The end of probate depends on the type of estate. Estates may require permanent administration, temporary administration or no administration. High-value estates can require permanent administration, particularly when minor children inherit millions. Less valuable estates might only require a temporary administration, to clear a few debts and approve a distribution plan. Small estates with few assets and no debt often require no administration through probate court. Probate laws vary state to state.
Probate and Nonprobate Assets
The executor or administrator accounts for probate assets to be distributed through the probate court and nonprobate assets to be distributed by prior contractual agreements, such as life insurance policies with named beneficiaries. Probate assets may need to be sold to pay off estate debts and help finalize the remaining value of the estate’s assets. The court may restrict the sale of assets priced too far below fair market value-- even if the administrator prefers to accept a low offer to expedite the process and end probate.
Distribution of Assets
The end of probate requires the distribution of all estate assets. After the creditors have been contacted and debts have been settled, the executor or administrator provides a final accounting of the remaining assets. The assets are distributed according to the will, if there is one. Without a will, heirs inherit the assets under a process determined by state law. Typically, assets first go to the surviving spouse and children, then potentially to other relatives.
Objections and Delays
Objections to the final accounting and distribution plan can prolong probate. The court must hear all objections before the final accounting and distributions take effect. Parties can reschedule hearings, request extensions and refuse to accept the final accounting. In order to end probate, parties can make a motion to the court to accept the final accounting and order distribution of the estate. Mediators may help heirs settle disputes by negotiating an out-of-court settlement of the estate.