What Happens at a Probate Court Hearing
This article is going to focus on the common steps you will encounter before, during, and after a probate court hearing:
- File a probate petition with the court
- The initial probate court hearing
- Responsibilities of the personal representative
- File a petition for final distribution
- Second probate court hearing and closing the estate
Understanding how the probate court process works will prepare you for what is required and expected from you if you are the personal representative of an estate. Furthermore, if you know what materials are needed and what steps to take during the probate process, it will go much quicker and be smoother then if you went into the court with no prior knowledge.
File a Probate Petition with the Court
When a parent or relative dies and leaves behind assets, you must initiate the probate process by filing a petition with the superior court where the decedent lived. If the decedent left a will, the executor will be the one to file the petition. However, if the decedent did not leave a will, or if the will did not specify an executor, a family member can file the petition. Once the petition is filed and accepted by the court, an examiner will be assigned to the probate case. The examiner simply does basic research on the estate in order to decide if the court will grant or deny the petition.
Initial Probate Court hearing
During the initial probate court hearing, the judge decides if the Order for Probate will be granted. In certain situations, the judge can ask for a continuance on the hearing so that the case can be reviewed again at a later date. This commonly occurs if there are issues with the information that the executor gave to the court. A judge will also commonly request a continuance on the hearing if they feel that supplemental information is necessary to decide on granting the Order for Probate.
After the judge grants the Order for Probate, the County Clerk where the decedent lived will send out Letters of Administration. While still early in the process, the Letters of Administration are extremely important for two main reasons. First, the letters establish the timeline for the probate process. Secondly, these letters officially establish who the personal representative of the case will be. If there is a will, this is typically the executor. However, if there is no will, the judge will choose who the personal representative will be. Additionally, the judge may place a bond on the personal representative. This ensures that they do not perform any negligent actions on the decedent’s estate. Finally, even if the will names an executor and will be the personal representative to the estate, they do not have any authority until officially recognized by the court.
Responsibilities of the Personal Representative
In most circumstances, the judge will state exactly what the personal representative must do during the initial probate court hearing. The responsibilities of a personal representative typically include:
- Contact all beneficiaries if the decedent did leave a will to notify them that the probate process has begun.
- Contact all creditors of the decedent. This is done by sending out a notice to creditors form. Additionally, they will publish in local newspapers that the decedent has passed away. This ensures that any unknown creditors have the opportunity to reconcile debts.
- Find and have a specialist appraise all the decedent’s assets. This process typically involves the personal representative compiling all financial accounts. Additionally, they will have any personal or real property appraised by an industry specialist. The easiest way to keep track of this is to create a simple spreadsheet. In the spreadsheet, you will list all the assets and the assets corresponding value.
- After finding creditors and appraising the assets of the estate, the personal representative must pay all debts. The personal representative will pay debts with monies from the estate. However, once the personal representative reaches out to any creditors, they usually have a few months to place a claim on the estate. If no creditors make a claim, then the personal representative must only pay any bills or taxes that the estate incurred after the death of the decedent.
These are the normal responsibilities of the personal representative. However, in certain cases, there may be additional actions that the personal representative must perform.
File a Petition for Final Distribution
Once the personal representative has gone through and completed each of the actions listed above, they will file a Petition for Final Distribution. Once filed and accepted by the court, there will be a second court hearing concerning the estate. In most cases, this second court hearing will be 9 – 12 months after the petition for probate was filed.
Second Probate Court Hearing
During the second probate court hearing, the judge will decide if the personal representative has sufficiently completed each of their responsibilities. Additionally, the judge takes this time to ensure that the personal representative did pay all of the decedent’s debts and taxes. The judge will sign and issue the final order to close the estate and distribute assets to the beneficiaries. However, the judge will only do so if the personal representative completed each step. After this document is signed, the personal representative will distribute assets to the beneficiaries. This distribution will be done according to the decedent’s will or the ruling of the court. Once the personal representative properly distributes the assets, the estate will officially close.
Because each state has specific laws and procedures tied to probate, finding correct and relevant information is difficult. By hiring a probate attorney, you are enlisting someone with knowledge of the state-specific laws. Furthermore, you will also have someone on your side to help you deal with potential creditors. Finally, a probate attorney will be able to help you distribute the assets in the most tax-efficient way.
Finally, a probate attorney is helpful in assisting with marshaling and valuing all the estate assets, assisting with finishing the accounting, completing the estate tax returns (death tax returns), and overseeing the asset distribution process. Most importantly, however, a probate attorney can asset the personal representative with preparing the initial pleadings to open the estate. A probate attorney can also help to guide the personal representative through their fiduciary obligations and important deadlines.
Contact our law office for more information
For more information on what happens during a probate court hearing contact Antonoplos & Associates at 202-803-5676. You can also directly schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.