What Is Probate?

by Team eLocal
Shot of a senior woman using a laptop during a meeting with a consultant at home

Dealing with the estate of a loved one can be overwhelming — especially if you end up in probate court with a complex situation.

Understanding how probate works and what happens in probate court can help you better navigate the situation. It can also help you plan for your own estate to make the probate process easier for your loved ones in the future.

What Is Probate?

Probate refers to legal proceedings an estate goes through after someone passes away to finalize and distribute the estate. The length of the probate process varies based on the complexity, but it can take anywhere from weeks to years. It's usually easier if the person has a will or living trust.

Many estates must go through the probate process, but the requirements can vary by state. For example, in Iowa, estates valued at under $25,000 (including only personal property) can skip probate and use affidavits to transfer the estate. Some states also have simplified probate processes for smaller estates.

What Is a Probate Court?

The probate court is the part of the judicial system that deals with wills, estates and similar situations. If you have a will, the probate court verifies that it's authentic. The executor named in these documents is also approved during probate. Without a will, probate becomes much more difficult because the court decides what to do with the estate.

What Kinds of Situations Are Handled by Probate Courts?

Most estates go through the probate process, even with a will. The process can be relatively quick and easy with those documents in place. Situations that are handled through probate court include:

  • Estates with no will in place.
  • Investment properties that are partner-owned if the will doesn't specify how to handle the deceased's share.
  • Accounts for which the beneficiary already passed away. For example, the beneficiary listed on the deceased's retirement account is no longer alive.
  • Beneficiaries who can't be located or refuse the inheritance.

Some individual assets can be handled without passing through probate first. This includes assets that you put in a trust, jointly owned assets that automatically go to the surviving owner and assets with named beneficiaries, such as retirement accounts and life insurance policies. Having a will and living trust in place, as well as keeping your beneficiaries updated on your finances, can make the probate process much easier.