What is Probate Anyway?

Everybody wants to avoid probate, but far too many of those who want to avoid it, know what is. Here’s a primer:

Probate is the legal process in which a deceased person’s will is proved valid; her personal representative or executor appointed; her property collected and preserved; and her debts, including taxes, paid. Usually, the deceased’s family hires an attorney to file the appropriate papers with the probate court to begin the process. Depending on the state and the complexity or size of the state, the probate process can be complicated or streamlined. In Utah, for example, if the deceased’s estate is under $100,000, probate can be handled via a s0-called small estate affidavit, a much more simple process.

The deceased person’s personal representative (another term for executor) is the point person in the process. Essentially, a personal representative fills the shoes of the deceased. What the deceased could do if she were still alive, the personal representative does instead. Need to transfer title? The personal representative does that. Need to close a bank account. Again, the personal representative steps up. Often (but not always) named in the deceased’s will, the personal representative, once he has the court’s blessing, is the one who goes about collecting property, paying debts, and–finally–distributing what’s left to the deceased’s heirs. Often (but again, not always) this is done under court supervision, depending again on the state and the size/complexity of the estate.

Why do people say they want to avoid probate? Probably because they’ve heard it’s expensive–which it can be–or because they’ve heard it’s public–which it is; that is, it’s public in the sense that your nosey neighbor can walk down to the courthouse and ask the clerk to see your probate file. Then it really becomes public.

There are a number of ways to avoid probate the attendant publicity and some of the cost. One is to establish a revocable or living trust. For more on that, go here.


  1. […] As we’ve discussed elsewhere, in an almost knee jerk way, people want to avoid probate. And for some good reasons. But what if I told you there were a possibility your heirs might have to go through two or even three probates? It’s true. If you own titled property, especially real estate, in another state than the one you live and die in, your personal representative is probably going to have to file probate papers in all the states where that property is located. And with that comes the added expense of additional attorneys and such. […]

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