Probate is a legal process initiated after a person has passed away. A more detailed definition of probate is the legal process by which a decedent’s will is authenticated before a court of proper jurisdiction. Harris County, Texas has four statutory probate courts. There are seven crucial steps to probating a will. The probate court first decides if a valid will exists, and if so, the court then appoints an executor or administrator. The executor, often a relative or close friend of the deceased, must complete the seven probate steps outlined below. The family or executor to assist usually hires a probate lawyer to assist with the process.
The seven steps include:
- Identify, collect and protect the decedent’s assets, and initiate the probate proceedings.
- Notify creditors as required by Texas law, pay all uncontested creditors at the proper time, and contest claims that appear wrong.
- Inform the Social Security Administration, insurance companies, credit card companies and others about the death.
- File all required papers with the probate court, including an inventory and appraisement (unless otherwise instructed), a formal accounting and other legal documents. Obtain a court order for distribution of assets to heirs and devisees.
- File the decedent’s final federal income tax return and pay any taxes owing.
- Determine who inherits property and assets. If the will is unclear, investigate further and file legal proceedings if necessary.
- Supervise the final distribution of assets to the heirs and devisees, obtain receipts for distributions, and obtain a release from each heir and devisee releasing the executor from further responsibility.
When families are faced with the death of a loved one, it is beneficial to at least consult a Houston probate attorney because s/he can advise whether a formal probate proceeding is required, or if a lesser procedure can be used such as a small estate affidavit or muniment of title. Though the Texas Probate Code is generous in terms of the time provided for a family to probate a will, it is not infinite. The deadline for probating a will is four years from the date the decedent passed away, and missing this deadline can have serious consequences.
There are also times when a family member passes away without a will. This is called intestacy. Probate lawyers also work with families under these conditions to bring closure to the decedent’s estate.