Elder Law, Estate Planning

The Probate Process Explained

The probate process involves authenticating the deceased individual’s will, assessing the assets, settling debts and taxes, and overseeing the allocation of the inheritance. After an asset-holder dies, the court will appoint a valid will’s executor to administer the probate process. In the absence of a will, the court will appoint a state administrator to handle probate. Probate law varies by state, but there are steps in the process that are common.

First, an executor is appointed and is normally the person named in the will. It is the executor’s responsibility to initiate the probate process. An executor can be a family member, a financial advisor, or any person the testator deemed capable of administering their estate. The executor files the will with the probate court, which initiates the probate process. A court officially appoints the executor as named in the will, giving the executor legal authority to act on the testator’s behalf.

The executor’s function is to locate and oversee all of the estate’s assets and to determine each asset’s value. The majority of the deceased’s assets are subject to the probate court, where the deceased lived at the time of their death. Real estate is an exception, and probate may extend to any county where the real estate is located.

The executor will pay any taxes and debts owed by the deceased from the estate. A notice of death is published, and creditors are given a limited time to make claims against the estate for any money owed to them. If the executor rejects the claim, the creditor may take them to court, where a probate judge will determine the debt’s validity. The executor is responsible for filing the deceased’s final, personal income tax returns. The executor’s last task, via court authorization, is to distribute what remains of the estate to the beneficiaries.

Probate is required for any asset or account that does not have a joint owner or beneficiary named.  If a joint owner or beneficiary is named, then title changes automatically and probate becomes unnecessary.

If a person dies without a will, they are said to have died intestate. An estate can also be deemed instate if the will presented to the court is found to be invalid. The decedent’s assets of an intestate estate follow a similar probate process, beginning with the appointment of an administrator. An administrator functions like an executor, receiving all legal claims against the estate, paying outstanding debts, and the decedent’s taxes.

Administrators must also seek out legal heirs, including surviving spouses, parents, and children. The probate court will determine the distribution of the estate among its legal heirs. In the absence of any family or other heirs, remaining assets go to the state.

The more complex or contested an estate is, the longer the probate process can take to finalize. The longer the process, the higher the cost. Probate without a will typically costs more than probate with a valid will, but neither scenario is inexpensive. Probate court files an estate’s assets as a matter of public record, so if you want to keep your estate private, it is best to pursue other estate planning options such as a trust. 

As estate planning attorneys, we can help you determine what planning tools are best for you. Contact us to schedule time for a private conversation to further determine how we can help. Please contact our Reno office by calling us at (775) 853-5700.

Estate Planning

Who Does a Probate Lawyer Represent?

Knowing the lawyer’s role, whether you are the Executor or an heir of the probate estate, is one of the first steps you should take at the beginning of the probate process. One of the biggest sources of conflict in probating the estate is understanding the role of the lawyer hired by the Executor of a probate estate. Many Executors do not understand the probate process and leave the tasks up to the lawyer. The heirs of the estate may hear only from the lawyer or may hear the Executor say, “This is what the lawyer says we have to do.” This often raises the question, does the lawyer owe a fiduciary duty to the heirs of the estate since the Executor owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs?

The answer to that question depends on the state in which the estate is being probated. To be clear, this question is specifically about whether a lawyer owes the heirs of a probate estate a fiduciary duty, and not whether a lawyer owes a fiduciary duty in other contexts, such as to the beneficiaries of a trust when hired by a trustee, or a ward when hired by a guardian or conservator. The answer varies depending on each different circumstance.

Also, before answering the question, it is helpful to have an idea of some common activities created by fiduciary duties in the context of probating an estate:

  • Duty to communicate: a duty to notify the beneficiaries the estate exists, identify the Executor, provide a copy of the inventory, provide copies of court filings, generally explain documents that require a beneficiary’s signature, etc. This duty to communicate is not the same thing as an attorney-client relationship, which means there is no attorney-client privilege and the attorney cannot give legal advice.
  • Duty to account: provide regular estate accountings, which includes explaining funds paid out of estate accounts for expenses.
  • Duty to treat all beneficiaries equal: distribute estate funds at the same time, if a question arises as to how something in the Will is to be interpreted the attorney cannot interpret it, the court must interpret it.

Turning back to the question, whether the lawyer owes a fiduciary duty the heirs of a probate estate depends on the state in which the estate is being probated. Only a few states require the lawyer to meet the same fiduciary duty to the estate heirs as the Executor. These states believe that since the Executor owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs and the lawyer owes a fiduciary duty to the Executor, the duty flows from the Executor to the lawyer.

Most states, however, take the position that the lawyer does not owe a fiduciary duty to the estate heirs. These states view the fiduciary duty owed by the Executor to the heirs as unique from the fiduciary duty owed by the lawyer to the Executor. Also, these states want to maintain the Executor’s ability to have protected communication with the attorney.

There is a small third set of states, including California, New Mexico, and Illinois, that apply a balancing test to determine who was the actual intended beneficiary of the attorney-client relationship, the Executor or the heirs? Each state has established their own test criteria, but some common questions the courts ask include: who was the intended beneficiary of the attorney’s services, the Executor or the heirs; what was the foreseeability of the harm to the heirs as a result of the malpractice; and what was the proximity of the misconduct and the damage to the heirs?

If you are the Executor hiring the attorney, ask what the law is. If you are an heir of the estate, the lawyer should give you some guidance. If the probate estate is in one of the majority states, the first letter from the attorney should start with a sentence that reads, “I have been retained by Mr. Smith, Executor of the Estate of Ms. Smith. It is important that you understand I do not represent you.”  Otherwise, call and ask.

Everyone’s goal should be for the settling of the probate estate to go smoothly. Understanding the lawyer’s role will go a long way towards achieving that goal.

If you have questions or would like to discuss your personal situation, please don’t hesitate to reach out.