Probate typically begins when the court appoints your executor and determines the validity of your will. Depending on the size of your estate and your state’s laws, the process may be heavily supervised or nearly unsupervised. Your executor’s role is to gather your estate’s assets, pay your debts and distribute any remaining assets to your beneficiaries in accordance with the terms of your will. You may wish to name someone who can keep track of paperwork and details since the process typically requires filing several batches of paperwork with the court. If you do not name an executor or do not make a valid will, the court will name an administrator to manage your estate.
Though state laws vary, your executor generally must notify beneficiaries and creditors, pay your debts, pay taxes due and distribute the assets left in your estate to your beneficiaries. During this process, your executor has a duty to deal honestly with your estate and represent its best interests rather than his own. After his duties are complete, he can be discharged from his role, but the process of obtaining a discharge varies between states. Typically, your executor must file a final accounting with the court and a petition to close the estate or other closing statement.
Formal Vs. Informal
States may have multiple versions of probate depending on the size of your estate. For example, Colorado has a shortened version of probate for estates that are under $50,000 in value and have no real estate. Larger or more complicated estates typically require a more formal process that is heavily supervised by the court. In more formal estates, your executor may need the court’s permission to distribute remaining assets to your beneficiaries before being discharged. If you do not want your executor to have to deal with the more formal process, you may want to incorporate trusts or other forms of non-probate transfers into your estate planning.
The court may require your executor to attend a hearing before issuing a discharge, or he might be able to obtain his discharge by filing the estate’s closing paperwork. For example, California courts require your executor to file a final account, report and petition for final distribution, and he must request a hearing with the court. He must give notice of the hearing to interested persons, such as potential beneficiaries and heirs. At the hearing, the court will issue an order approving final distribution. Your beneficiaries can waive the requirement for your executor to file the final account, but they must sign a written waiver or acknowledgement.