Every state has laws to specifically regulate the requirements to probate an estate. Also determined are laws for “intestate succession”, which is when someone dies without a will. Even in these cases, distribution of the estate and paying the decedent’s final bills is required by probate.
A probate judge will need to confirm any will is actually valid, and may involve a hearing in court. Notice of the hearing will be given to all beneficiaries listed in the will, and their heirs who would stand to inherit by law if there were no will.
An executor is required to oversee the probate process and settle the estate, and will be appointed by the court if the decedent did not specify someone, or if there is no will. In the case of no will, the court generally will appoint next of kin.
The executor is tasked with the protection of all the decedent’s assets, which first involves locating all of them. This typically is found through documentation such as tax returns, bank statements and insurance policies but it is not unusual for there to be assets no one was told about.
Additionally, creditors must be located and notified of the death, usually by publishing in a local newspaper. This allows unknown creditors to be identified, and creditors will have a limited time to establish claims for collection of debt. Once all known debt obligations have been paid, there of course is the matter of filing income tax returns for the year of death, and taxes may include estate tax. Liquidation of assets may be required to fund the debt and tax payments, if the estate does not have sufficient assets.
Among the last steps will be the distribution of the remaining estate, which the court must usually approve. Permission is granted by the court, after the executor has provided a complete reckoning and accounting for the probate process expenditures and all financial transactions.