Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a deceased person’s estate. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item. What happens if there is a surviving spouse?
Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. In the absence of a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.
Family dynamics on the surviving spouse can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.
There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.
A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.
The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.
If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem this can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.
Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly, when there is no will.
If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.
There are also limitations as to how probate can be used to distribute and manage an estate. In some states, the time limit is four years from the date of death.
An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.
Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”
Suggested Key Terms: Probate, Last Will and Testament, Surviving Spouse, Estate Planning Attorney, Title