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Receipt of probate is the first step in the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person, resolving all claims and distributing the deceased person's property under a will. A probate court (surrogate court) decides the legal validity of a testator's will and grants its approval by granting probate to the executor. The probated will becomes a legal document that may be enforced by the executor in the law-courts if necessary. A probate also officially appoints the executor (or personal representative), generally named in the will, as having legal power to dispose of the testator's assets in the manner specified in the will.
In any jurisdictions in the U.S. that recognize a married couple's property as tenancy by the entireties, if a person dies intestate (owning property without a will), the portion of his/her estate so titled passes to a surviving spouse without a probate.
If the estate is not automatically devised to the surviving spouse in this manner or through a joint tenancy, and is not held within a trust, it is necessary to "probate the estate", whether or not the decedent had a valid will. A court having jurisdiction of the decedent's estate (a probate court) supervises probate, to administer the disposition of the decedent's property according to the law of the jurisdiction and the decedent's intent as manifested in his testamentary instrument. Dispose of certain estate assets requires selling illiquid assets, including real estate. There are exceptions for smaller estates. If the decedent died without a will, known as intestacy, the estate is distributed according to the laws of the state where the decedent resided, or as held by the court. If the decedent died with a will, the will usually names an executor (personal representative), who carries out the instructions laid out in the will. The executor marshals the decedent's assets. If there is no will, or if the will does not name an executor, the probate court can appoint one. Traditionally, the representative of an intestate estate is called an administrator. If the decedent died with a will, but only a copy of the will can be located, many states allow the copy to be probated, subject to the rebuttable presumption that the testator destroyed the will before death.
In some cases, where the person named as executor cannot administer the probate, or wishes to have someone else do so, another person is named administrator. An executor or an administrator may receive compensation for his service.
The probate court may require that the executor provide a fidelity bond, an insurance policy in favor of the estate to protect against possible abuse by the executor.
The representative of a testate estate who is someone other than the executor named in the will is an administrator with the will annexed, or administrator c.t.a. (from the Latin cum testamento annexo.) The generic term for executors or administrators is personal representative.
Steps of probate
Some of the decedent's property may never enter probate because it passes to another person contractually, such as the death proceeds of an insurance policy insuring the decedent or bank or retirement account that names a beneficiary or is owned as "payable on death", and property (sometimes a bank or brokerage account) legally held as "jointly owned with right of survivor-ship".
Property held in a revocable or irrevocable trust created during the grantor's lifetime also avoids probate. In these cases in the U.S. no court action is involved and the property is distributed privately, subject to estate taxes.
After opening the probate case with the court, the personal representative inventories and collects the decedent's property. Next, he pays any debts and taxes, including estate tax in the United States, if the estate is taxable at the federal or state level. Finally, he distributes the remaining property to the beneficiaries, either as instructed in the will, or under the intestacy laws of the state.
A party may challenge any aspect of the probate administration, such as a direct challenge to the validity of the will, known as a will contest, a challenge to the status of the person serving as personal representative, a challenge as to the identity of the heirs, and a challenge to whether the personal representative is properly administering the estate. Issues of paternity can be disputed among the potential heirs in intestate estates, especially with the advent of inexpensive DNA profiling techniques. In some situations, however, even biological heirs can be denied their inheritance rights, while non-biological heirs can be granted inheritance rights.
The personal representative must understand and abide by the fiduciary duties, such as a duty to keep money in interest bearing account and to treat all beneficiaries equally. Not complying with the fiduciary duties may allow interested persons to petition for the removal of the personal representative and hold the personal representative liable for any harm to the estate.