What is a “probate estate” and how do I open one?
Some people think probate is not fun, and I would tend to agree with them. However, anybody who tells you that someone helping them with probate is as bad as that other “pr-” word that rhymes with probate? They’re exaggerating. (That’s as racy as a legal blog ever gets, folks.) Probate is a formal legal process that gives somebody the ability to handle the assets and obligations of someone who has passed away. We call that person a decedent. Usually, probate results in the formal recognition of a Will and appoints someone, called an executor or personal representative, to administer the estate and distribute assets to the intended beneficiaries. A probate estate is all the assets a person owns at his or her death that are subject to probate administration. Simply put, the probate process helps you transfer your estate in an orderly and supervised manner.
So, how do you open a probate estate? Great question! It helps if you find the decedent’s Will (if they had one). You will need to make a list of the beneficiaries and fiduciaries listed in the Will, or if you don’t have one, then the next of kin. Be sure to include as much information as possible, such as names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, social security numbers, and even email addresses. If you don’t have the information that’s fine for now, but we’ll need to complete the list later. Not sure if the decedent made a Will? That’s a common problem. Check any personal effects of the decedent, including safe deposit boxes if you can access them. This might take a while, but eventually you’ll be ready to go to the Surrogate (in New Jersey – in Pennsylvania they call that office the Register of Wills).
Once you go through the probate process, which I describe in other articles here in this blog, you will need to make a complete list of the decedent’s assets, such as cash, investments, jewelry and other personal effects. You will then make a complete list of the decedent’s liabilities. This should include anyone the decedent owed money to (mortgages, loans, utilities, credit cards, and medical bills). I can help you with this process, although admittedly the Surrogate’s offices in each county in New Jersey are so helpful you might not even need a lawyer to help you! That advice costs me money, so you can believe it.
Each state has different requirements with regard to what legal documents will be necessary to officially open an estate. That’s why it’s important to meet with an estate lawyer who understands all of the local probate rules, if you haven’t been able to get the help you needed from the Surrogate. I tell clients all the time that this process isn’t difficult, or at least no individual part is difficult. The complication comes in just making sure all the steps get done in the right order. While these steps may seem overwhelming, this is the way to ensure the probate process is performed accurately. Of course, we would be happy to help out if you ever had any questions.
Archer Brogan Can Help
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