Demystifying the Probate Terminology
When an Arizona resident passes away, state laws establish requirements for administration and distribution of the deceased person’s estate. In some (but not all) cases, probate of the estate is necessary. If you lose a loved one, the probate process and terminology can be very confusing. In this article, East Valley probate lawyer Shane Peterson explains the overall probate process and important terms you may encounter.
What Is Probate?
Probate or probate administration (terms that are often used interchangeably) refers to a statutory court-supervised process required by Arizona law for administration and distribution of a deceased person’s estate. The state has several different processes that may apply to a particular estate, including informal probate, formal probate, and supervised probate. The nature and value of property in an estate and the circumstances of the estate determine whether probate is necessary, and, if so, what type of probate is required.
Probate is not required for all estates, but it is required for some estates. In fact, many individuals intentionally avoid probate by going through careful estate planning with a knowledgeable lawyer. In addition, some small estates may qualify for the Arizona simplified affidavit process for small estates and avoid probate. In any case, talking with a probate lawyer is the only reliable way to determine what the requirements are for a specific estate.
Even when an estate must go through probate, there may be some assets that are not included in the probate process. These assets are called non-probate assets or non-probate property. In contrast, the term probate assets (property) describes the property or assets that must go through probate.
How Does Probate Start?
If state law requires property in an estate to go through the statutory probate process, the first step is appointment of the personal representative of the estate. Until the court appoints a personal representative by issuing letters of personal representative on the request of a specific individual, no one has any authority to administer or distribute the estate.
If a person dies testate, which means they died with a valid will in place, an executor named in the will has priority to apply for appointment as the personal representative. If a person dies intestate, which means they died without a valid will, or a named executor cannot or does not wish to be appointed, Arizona law determines the priority order of eligibility of appointment as personal representative.
The personal representative of an estate has significant statutory fiduciary duties in administering and distributing an estate and completing the probate process. Fiduciary duties are one of the highest levels of legal duties imposed by Arizona laws. In most cases, the personal representative should get assistance from an experienced probate lawyer to ensure that the responsibilities and processes are fulfilled as required by Arizona law.
What Happens in the Probate Process?
Specific steps in the probate process depend on what type of probate an estate goes through. Generally, the process begins with the personal representative identifying and collecting all assets and property of the estate, then creating an inventory. Each asset must be assigned a value, which may require appraisal.
The personal representative also must notify specific individuals about probate of the estate, including beneficiaries (those who inherit under a will) or heirs (those who inherit from an intestate decedent) and creditors. Other important duties include paying all outstanding bills and expenses of the estate and decedent, including taxes, and filing the required tax returns.
Property in the estate cannot be distributed until all the steps in the probate process are completed as required under Arizona law. After all those steps have been finalized, the personal representative distributes the assets to the heirs or beneficiaries. In some cases, distribution of the estate may require retitling assets.
After distribution of the estate, the personal representative files a closing statement to ask the court to close the probate. This request is the final step in the probate process, unless there is a challenge to something that occurred during the process. Specific notifications are required when the statement is filed.
Getting Help With Probate
If you lose a loved one, you should not try to navigate the estate administration and probate process on your own, especially since you and your family should be able to focus on grieving your loss. Getting help from a knowledgeable probate lawyer is the best way to make certain that you take all the right steps with your loved one’s estate. Working closely with the personal representative, an experienced attorney assumes many of the burdens of securing appointment of the personal representative, determining which assets need to go through probate and what process applies, and then assisting the personal representative in completing all the steps of the process.
Schedule a Free Consultation With an East Valley Probate Lawyer
At Peterson Law Offices, we assist clients with all aspects of estate administration and probate, regardless of the size and nature of an estate. Your first consultation is always free of charge. If you have questions and concerns about settling a deceased loved one’s estate, we are here to help.
We take pride in offering top-quality, affordable legal services and exceptional client service. We welcome inquiries from clients throughout the East Valley, including Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Gilbert, Mesa, and Chandler. Schedule your free initial consultation by calling 480-878-5998 or using our online contact form.