The court process by which a Will is proved valid or invalid. The legal process wherein the estate of a decedent is administered.
When a person dies, his or her estate must go through probate, which is a process overseen by a probate court. If the decedent leaves a will directing how his or her property should be distributed after death, the probate court must determine if it should be admitted to probate and given legal effect. If the decedent dies intestate—without leaving a will—the court appoints a Personal Representative to distribute the decedent’s property according to the laws of Descent and Distribution. These laws direct the distribution of assets based on hereditary succession.
In general, the probate process involves collecting the decedent’s assets, liquidating liabilities, paying necessary taxes, and distributing property to heirs. Probate procedures are governed by state law and have been the subject of debate and reform since the 1960s. The Uniform Probate Code (UPC) was first proposed in 1969 by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association. The prime focus of the UPC is to simplify the probate process. The UPC, which has been amended numerous times, has been adopted in its entirety by 16 states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah. The other 36 states have adopted some part of the UPC but still retain distinct procedures.
Probate of a Will
The probate of a will means proving its genuineness in probate court. Unless otherwise provided by statute, a will must be admitted to probate before a court will allow the distribution of a decedent’s property to the heirs according to its terms.
As a general rule, a will has no legal effect until it is probated. A will should be probated immediately, and no one has the right to suppress it. The person with possession of a will, usually the personal representative or the decedent’s attorney, must produce it. Statutes impose penalties for concealing or destroying a will or for failing to produce it within a specified time.
Probate proceedings are usually held in the state in which the decedent had domicile or permanent residence at the time of death. If, however, the decedent owned real property in a another state, the will disposing of these assets must also be probated in that state.To qualify as a will in probate, an instrument must be of testamentary character and comply with all statutory requirements. A document is testamentary when it does not take effect until after the death of the person making it and allows the individual to retain the property under personal control during her or his lifetime. A will that has been properly executed by a competent person—the testator—as required by law is entitled to be probated, even if some of its provisions are invalid, obscure, or cannot be implemented.
A will made as a result of Fraud or Undue Influence or a will that has been altered so that all its provisions are revoked will be denied probate. If the alteration only revokes certain provisions of the will, the remaining provisions can be admitted to probate.
All separate papers, instruments, or sheets comprising the most recent of a testator’s wills will be admitted to probate. Where a later will does not explicitly revoke all prior wills, two separate and distinct wills can be probated. Probate courts seek to carry out the declared intention of a testator regarding the disposition of property, and they resort to distributing property according to the law of descent and distribution only where no reasonable alternatives exist.
As a general rule, the original document must be presented for probate. Probate of a copy or duplicate of a will is not permitted unless the absence of the original is satisfactorily explained to the court. If a properly proved copy or duplicate of a will that has been lost or destroyed is presented to the court, it may be admitted to probate. Some states have special proceedings to handle such occurrences. A thorough and diligent search for the will is necessary before a copy can be probated as a lost will.
A codicil, which is a supplement to a will, is entitled to be probated together with the will it modifies, if it is properly executed according to statute. If it is complete in itself and can stand as a separate testamentary instrument independent of the will, the codicil alone can be admitted to probate. A codicil that has been subsequently revoked by another codicil is not entitled to probate.
A will made in a foreign language will be admitted to probate if the testator understood what it contained and it otherwise complies with other statutory requirements. A translation usually must accompany the will.
A probate proceeding may involve either formal or informal procedures. Traditionally, probate proceedings were governed by formal procedures that required the probate court to hold hearings and issue orders involving routine matters. Consequently, the legal costs of probating an estate could be substantial. States that have adopted the UPC provisions on probate procedures allow informal probate proceedings that remove the probate court from most stages of the process, with the result that informal probate is cheaper and quicker than formal probate. Most small estates benefit from an informal probate proceeding.
The probate process begins when the personal representative files with the clerk of the probate court a copy of the death certificate along with the will and a petition to admit the will to probate and to grant letters testamentary, which authorize him or her to distribute the estate. Although the personal representative usually files the probate petition, it can be filed by any person who has a pecuniary interest in the will. In states governed by the UPC, the personal representative must elect whether to proceed with formal or informal probate at the time of filing. However, a probate proceeding may be switched from informal to formal during the course of administration, if issues so warrant.
In a formal probate proceeding, a hearing must be held to establish the death of the testator, the residency of the decedent, the genuineness of the will, its conformance with statutory requirements for its execution, and the competency of the testator at the time the will was made. These requirements are usually fulfilled by the attesting witnesses who were present at the time the will was made and who certify that it was properly executed. The number of attesting witnesses is prescribed by law. If fewer than the required number witness a will, it will be declared void, and the testator’s property will pass according to the laws of descent and distribution.
When some or all of the witnesses to a will are unavailable, special steps are taken. If the required witnesses have died before the testator, the person offering the will must offer proof of death, in addition to evidence of the genuineness of the signatures and any other proof of execution available. The UPC simplifies witness issues by permitting the admission of “self-authenticating” wills. These wills contain a statement signed by the witnesses that attests to the competency of the testator and other statutory requirements. Self-authentication relieves the witnesses of the burden of appearing in court and the personal representative of costly procedures if the witnesses are unavailable.
If no one objects to the will at the hearing, it will be admitted to probate.
Informal probate proceedings generally do not require a hearing. The personal representative files the death certificate and will, along with a petition to admit the will under informal probate. The clerk of probate court reviews the submissions and recommends to the court that the will be probated. Once the court issues the order for informal probate, the personal representative files a series of forms that demonstrate that notice has been given to all interested parties about the probate, the decedent’s creditors have been paid, and the estate’s assets have been collected, appraised, and distributed to the designated heirs.
Contested Probate Proceedings
The probate of a will can be opposed or contested on the ground that the instrument is void because of the testamentary incapacity of the testator at the time the will was made, the failure to comply with the formalities required by law, or any matter sufficient to show the nonexistence of a valid will. When a will is contested, formal proceedings are required.
Will contests are concerned only with external validity, such as failure of due execution, fraud, mistake, undue influence, lack of testamentary capacity, or lack of intent that the instrument be a will. Issues of internal validity, such as violation of the Rule against Perpetuities, must be raised in proceedings at a later stage of administration. Although a will has been probated as a genuine expression of the testator’s intended distribution of property upon her or his death, the estate might be disposed of according to the laws of descent and distribution if the testamentary provisions violate the law.
Only a person having some interest that will be affected by the probate can contest it. Such persons include next of kin who will receive property if the will is set aside and intestacy results, purchasers of property from the heir or heirs, administrators or personal representatives under prior wills, and the state, if there is a possibility of Escheat, which means that the government will receive the property if no living heirs can be found. Creditors, however, generally are not entitled to contest the will of a debtor.
A personal representative must defend the will against attack and must employ his or her best efforts to have it sustained if he or she reasonably believes that the will is valid.
Methods by which a will can be contested generally include a contest in the court having jurisdiction over probate, an appeal from the order granting or denying probate, and separate actions to set aside the order granting or denying probate.
There is no constitutional right to trial by jury in probate or will contest proceedings. Most states, however, have statutes making a trial by jury available in a will contest. Statutes usually impose time limits on the institution of will contests.
Agreement not to Contest
A testator can enter into a contract with her or his heirs in which they agree not to contest a will. If the contract is supported by consideration—something of value—and the agreement is otherwise valid, the heirs will be prevented from contesting the will. The beneficiaries under a will and the heirs can enter into a valid contract not to contest a will. States vary as to the remedies a party to an agreement not to contest a will has upon breach. These include an Injunction against the prosecution of the contest, an action at law for damages, or a defense to the contest.
An agreement among heirs and beneficiaries not to contest a will is a way to avoid a costly will contest proceeding. The heirs and beneficiaries negotiate a settlement that may defeat the intention of the testator in how the assets are distributed. A settlement will be valid if all interested parties agree, but it must not exclude anyone entitled to property under the will. Under some statutes the compromise or settlement must be submitted to the probate court for approval.
Guardianship of Minor Children
Wills often contain instructions on who should be appointed legal guardian of the decedent’s minor children. The probate court may investigate the qualifications of the proposed guardian before granting an order of appointment. When a will does not contain a guardianship provision, the court itself must determine, based on the best interests of the children, who should be appointed guardian.
Right of Review
A right of appeal from a probate decree is given to any person who would suffer a direct financial loss as a result of the decree. The appellate court is restricted to a consideration of the questions presented to and determined by the lower court. An issue not presented to the probate court usually will not be considered.
Brown, Gordon W. 2003. Administration of Wills, Trusts, and Estates. 3d ed. Clifton Park, N.Y.: Thomson/Delmar Learning.
Christianson, Stephen G. 2001. How to Administer an Estate: A Step-by-Step Guide for Families and Friends. 4th ed. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: Career Press.
Esperti, Robert A., and Renno L. Peterson. 1992. The Living Trust Revolution: Why America is Abandoning Wills and Probate. New York: Viking Penguin.
Foster, Frances H. 2001. “The Family Paradigm of Inheritance Law.” North Carolina Law Review 80 (December).
Monopoli., Paula A. 2003. American Probate: Protecting the Public, Improving the Process. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.
Shepherd, Thomas H. 2001. “It’s the 21st Century… Time for Probate Codes to Address Family Violence: A Proposal that Deals with the Realities of the Problem.” St. Louis University Public Law Review 20 (winter).
West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.