Probate Checklist - How to Open a Probate Estate

8 Steps to Opening a Probate Estate

Probate is the legal process of proving a will is authentic and valid through a review. Those responsible for opening a decedent's estate and submitting the will for probate need to take the following eight steps to heart.

#1 - Locate and Read the Decedent's Last Will and Testament.

Last Will and Testament Document
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If you believe the decedent has drafted a last will and testament, locate and thoroughly study this document, as it will reveal whether or not the decedent has named a personal representative (aka executor) to handle his estate. If an executor is named, turn the will over to that individual. You legally have no further responsibilities, in managing the probate estate. 

Move on to Step 3 if the decedent did not leave a will. 

#2 - Make a Complete List of the Will's Beneficiaries

Will and Testament Papers with a ribbon
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The decedent's will should identify his beneficiaries, which are the individuals to whom he or she wishes to leave his property. Compile a list of their names and contact information, including addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and email addresses. If a beneficiary is deceased, obtain his or her original death certificate.

#3 - Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Assets

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This list should include every asset the decedent owned, including cash left in his wallet, bank accounts, investments, jewelry, personal effects, furniture, collectibles, cars, boats, real estate, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and business interests. 

#4 - Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Liabilities.

Last Will and Testament Form
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Liabilities are the financial obligations that a person has. This list of the decedent's liabilities should include all of their creditors. List all the debts, including mortgages, personal loans, utilities, credit cards, and medical bills.

#5 - Meet With an Estate Lawyer

Signing will in a lawyer's office
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The executor of the will and its beneficiaries should plan to attend the first meeting with an estate lawyer--either in person or by phone. If the decedent didn't have a will, his heirs-at-law should attend as well, as these individuals may be entitled to collect some of the inheritance, even without a will, purely due to a degree of kinship.

#6 - Review and Sign the Documents Required to Open the Probate Estate

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Different states and counties can have different requirements regarding the legal documents required to officially open estates with probate courts. Estate lawyers and probate court clerks can furnish you with a list of necessary items. Just be sure to hire local attorneys who are familiar with your particular county's local probate rules.  

#7 - Wait to Hear From the Court

Gavel, Will and Testament
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After all the appropriate legal paperwork is filed with the probate court, you must wait until the probate judge reviews the file. He'll then either admit the will or estate for probate or request additional information. Finally, he will authorize a personal representative to act on behalf of the estate and its beneficiaries, by granting him or her "letters testamentary" or "letters of administration." 

#8 - Provide Certified Copies of Probate Orders to All Financial Institutions.

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The personal representative of the estate should handle everything else from this point forward. He or she should provide copies of all orders signed by the judge and should provide letters testamentary to the financial institutions where the decedent's assets are located, letting them know that he or she is authorized to take control of them. 

State and local laws change frequently and the above information may not reflect the most recent changes. Please consult with an attorney for the most up-to-date advice. The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice.

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