What is probate?

Learn what happens to an estate after the owner dies.

Last updated:

We value our editorial independence, basing our comparison results, content and reviews on objective analysis without bias. But we may receive compensation when you click links on our site. Learn more about how we make money from our partners.

In the wake of a close relation passing away, material things may seem trite. But probate as a legal process can help protect the assets that your loved one left behind.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process that manages an estate after the owner dies. It involves legitimizing the will and distributing assets.

It protects that person’s belongings and makes sure their wishes are carried out after they’re gone. But it’s known for being tediously slow and can get expensive due to court and lawyer fees.

If there’s a will, you’ll begin by following these steps:

  1. File the petition. It all starts with some paperwork. A petition must be filed with the probate court to appoint the executor and validate the will. Documents you may need include: a death certificate, the original will and an application from the court clerk. Typically, this is done by the person dictated as executor, or by family.
  2. Appoint the executor. The court schedules a hearing to officiate the executor and confirm the will. Creditors and beneficiaries are notified and invited to attend. In most cases it’s just a formality, but if someone wanted to contest the appointed executor, this would be their chance.
  3. Validate the will. As part of the first hearing, the court decides whether or not the will is legitimate. Typically, all that’s needed is a word from its witnesses — a notarized statement, sworn statement, or court testimony.
  4. Notify creditors. The executor writes to the estate’s creditors to inform them about the death. There’s a limited window of time in which the creditors can make a claim on the deceased’s assets.
  5. Take inventory. It’s the executor’s job to locate everything the descendant left behind, including stocks, property, bonds and bank accounts. An independent appraiser can be hired to help.
  6. Pay back debts and taxes. After assets are accounted for, the executor must decide whether or not the creditor’s claims are legitimate. Then, all the bills connected to the estate must be paid. If more cash is needed, items may have to be sold.
    The executor must file taxes, accounting for the decedent’s personal income in the last year of their life, and any taxes owed on the estate. The estate’s assets should pay for this.
  7. Distribute the estate. Finally, the executor petitions the court, asking permission to give beneficiaries what’s theirs, as dictated by the will. Stocks and property are transferred to the appropriate owners and assets are liquidated or doled out. The will has officially been carried out.

How long does the probate process last?

The American Bar Association says six to nine months, on average. However, how long it takes can depend on:

  • The clarity of the will regarding the estate
  • How complicated the estate is to split up
  • How quickly creditors come forward to claim assets
  • The pace at which the executor makes decisions

What’s the probate process without a will?

If there’s not a will, authority over the assets goes straight to the courts. From there, the intestate laws of that particular state determines the order the property is passed on to relatives. The court can also appoint an executor to manage debt repayment and asset liquidation.

But since each state sets its own rules, check the laws in the place where the decedent last resided to confirm what will happen.

Compare life insurance companies

Name Product Issue Ages Coverage Range Medical Exam Required State Availability
18 - 85 years old
$10,000 to $10,000,000+
Depends on provider and policy
All 50 states
Compare quotes from 16 life insurance companies side by side.
18 - 64 years old
$100,000 to $3,000,000
All 50 states
Customized term life insurance policies up to $3 million, no medical exam required.
18 - 75 years old
$100,000 to $10,000,000
Get a term life insurance quote from this A+ rated company, founded in 1875.
20 to 60 years old
$100,000 to $8,000,000
Not available in New York
Term life insurance with no policy fees and the freedom to cancel anytime. Simple application process that can get you approved for coverage instantly.
25 - 60 years old
$100,000 to $5,000,000
Available in all states except for Montana
Offers term life insurance with accelerated underwriting. No-exam coverage up to $1,000,000 for those who qualify.
21 - 54 years old
$50,000 to $1,000,000
Not available in Alaska or New York
Affordable 2-, 10- and 20-year term life insurance policies. Instant quotes and no medical exams.
18 - 80 years old
$2,000 to $10,000,000
Depends on policy
20 - 80 years old
$25,000 to $10,000,000
All 50 states
Quickly get a quote for coverage with this marketplace, which compares term & whole life insurance policies from 45+ carriers.
20 - 85 years old
$100,000 to $1,000,000
Depends on policy
All 50 states
Get a term or whole life insurance quote from Fidelity Life - starting as low as $15/day.
25 - 83 years old
$25,000 to $1,000,000
Depends on policy
Get a term life quote from eCoverage - starting at as low as $15 per month.

Compare up to 4 providers

Bottom line

The probate process makes sure your assets are managed in an orderly fashion after you’re gone — but it can be time-consuming and expensive. Planning your estate on the front end can help ensure things move smoothly later on, which can include securing life insurance and establishing a private trust.

Frequently asked questions

Was this content helpful to you? No  Yes

Ask an Expert

You are about to post a question on finder.com:

  • Do not enter personal information (eg. surname, phone number, bank details) as your question will be made public
  • finder.com is a financial comparison and information service, not a bank or product provider
  • We cannot provide you with personal advice or recommendations
  • Your answer might already be waiting – check previous questions below to see if yours has already been asked

Finder.com provides guides and information on a range of products and services. Because our content is not financial advice, we suggest talking with a professional before you make any decision.

By submitting your comment or question, you agree to our Privacy and Cookies Policy and Terms of Use.

Questions and responses on finder.com are not provided, paid for or otherwise endorsed by any bank or brand. These banks and brands are not responsible for ensuring that comments are answered or accurate.
Go to site