What Is Probate?
Probate is a process in which a personal representative settles the estate of a decedent under the supervision of a probate court. Probate can be an extensive process, taking several months or more. However, Michigan offers a simplified probate procedure for small estates of limited value. If a person owned no property at the time of death, or owned property jointly with a surviving spouse (in which case, the property goes to the spouse upon decedent's death), the need for probate is unlikely. Most probate proceedings are a matter of public record.
The Probate Process
If the deceased left a will, the first step is for the personal representative to procure a copy of the will. He then petitions the probate court, typically in the county where the death took place, to admit the will and formally appoint him as personal representative. If the probate court finds the will valid, it will admit the will and give the personal representative permission to begin settling the estate according to the terms of the will. Once the settlement process is complete, the personal representative files an accounting with the probate court that basically details everything he did: money spent, debts and taxes paid, and property or cash distributed. Unless a family member of the deceased wishes to dispute this accounting, the probate court will then give the personal representative permission to close the estate.
Personal Representative's Duties
Whether the deceased left a will or not, the personal representative will have many duties as part of the probate process. After presenting the will, he must collect all of the deceased's property. He must inform any potential creditors, usually via direct contact or notices in local publications, who then have a few months to submit a claim to the estate; if they do, the personal representative must pay all valid claims. He must also file an income tax return for the decedent; in the case of larger estates, an estate income tax return may be required as well. All estate debts and taxes must be paid before the personal representative may distribute remaining property to beneficiaries; in Michigan, if the personal representative distributes property too early, before the time limit for creditor claims runs out, he will be liable for any shortfall if further creditor claims arrive.
Once the personal representative has dealt with debts and taxes, he can then begin to distribute property to beneficiaries in accordance with the terms of the will. If there is no will, property distribution becomes more complicated and the personal representative must distribute the decedent's assets to his closest relations, or heirs, in accordance with Michigan law. The order of distribution is known as the order of intestate succession; in Michigan, this first begins with the surviving spouse and any descendants before moving on to parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and so forth. Once all property is distributed, the personal representative can present his accounting to the probate court.