The role of probate judges is to oversee estate administration.
Generally speaking, judges are responsible for upholding the local and federal laws in the courts.
In some cases, this involves deciding on appropriate discipline for criminal actions.
In other cases, judges must oversee the execution of legal documents for business arrangements or estate plans.
According to a recent Yahoo Finance article titled “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?”, counties typically have their own probate judges to oversee the estate administrations of their decedent residents.
Probate judges help ensure the wishes of decedents are followed by their executors.
They also provide guidance and oversight for the estates of those who died intestate without a last will and testament.
The probate process is multifaceted and includes determining the validity of a last will, paying estate bills and taxes, and eventually distributing assets to heirs.
Fun fact: probate is derived from the Latin word probare, which means to prove.
In the case of a probate court case, the first responsibility of the probate is to determine whether the “last will” admitted to probate is not the “second-to-the-last-will” of the decedent!
The probate proceedings can be very straightforward when the decedent’s legal and financial affairs are organized, and a clear and valid last will has been duly executed.
However, when a person has not organized their legal and financial affairs or created an estate plan, the probate judge must be more involved in the settlement of the estate.
What does probate generally look like when a person leaves an “organized life” at the time of death and has a last will?
A Probate Case is Opened With the Court.
The executor (i.e., personal representative) is named in the last will.
This individual is granted the responsibility of settling the estate of the decedent.
Generally, the first action taken by an executor is to file the last will with the probate court.
The probate judge then hears any objections to the last will.
For example, sometimes there is concern about the decedent being coerced to sign a new last will.
Other times, beneficiaries may disagree with the terms of the last will.
Probate judges make all decisions regarding a contested last will.
If there are no external objections and the judge finds the last will to be the “last” will, then the executor is approved and can proceed with administering the estate.
Interested Parties Must be Notified.
The executor must publish notices for general creditors in the “legal notice” section of the local newspaper and contact any known creditors and heirs.
Creditors are given a specific timeframe to submit claims from the estate.
For example, in Kansas, a creditor must claim the estate within six months of the decedent’s death or be forever barred.
Estate Assets Must be Inventoried.
The executor must provide an inventory of the estate assets subject to probate and include the fair market value of each purchase as valued on the day the decedent died.
This may require obtaining appraisals by certified appraisers and coordination with the decedent’s financial advisor for publically traded securities.
The probate judge and the heirs both receive copies of this inventory.
Assets Should be Distributed.
Once the probate judge receives an inventory of the estate, has received and resolved any will contests, and confirmed payment of all debts, taxes, and expenses, then they authorize asset distribution according to the terms of the last will.
Sometimes assets must be sold to satisfy these debts.
Inheritances to minor children and to adults are both overseen by the probate courts.
The Estate Must be Terminated.
Because the work of an executor can take significant time and effort, these individuals are typically compensated.
Suppose a “reasonable fee” standard is used to determine executor and probate attorney compensation.
In that case, considerable time and money can be saved by keeping an accurate asset inventory of your estate that is accessible to your executor when relevant (i.e., your death).
This is the Kansas approach.
In Missouri, by statute, the executor and attorney each are entitled to a percentage of the probate estate absent specific provisions in the last will.
Either way, the probate judge ultimately approves or revises the compensation for the executor.
After the creditors, executor, attorney, and heirs have been paid, the probate judge orders the estate to be closed.
Although the estate administration is closed, the probate documents are still a matter of public record.
How is the process different for those who die without a last will?
Although the steps are generally the same, the proceedings are more complicated and require greater involvement from the probate judge as they apply state intestacy laws to the estate.
Reference: Yahoo Finance (Aug. 31, 2021) “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?“