Probate: What It Is -- and How to Avoid It

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Quick summary

Probate is the legal process that includes filing a deceased person's will with a court, locating and gathering the assets owned at death, paying all final debts and taxes due -- and, eventually, distributing the property that remains as the will directs. If someone dies without leaving a valid will and without setting up any of the other ways to pass property discussed below, the property will be distributed according to a formula set out in state law.


How probate works


  • Taking the will to court: During probate, the will must be brought to a local court, where it will be examined to be sure it's authentic and properly signed and witnessed, and that it complies with all other state requirements.
  • Who can receive property: If your relative dies without a will or with an invalid one, also known as "dying intestate," the court will determine who's entitled to take any property under state law. While state laws vary slightly, most specify that the property goes according to a hierarchy: first to a surviving spouse, then to any children, and finally to any surviving parent, siblings, nieces and nephews, and next of kin.
  • Administering the estate: The probate court will order the executor, who is named in the will, to administer that will. If there is no will, the court will appoint an administrator. The executor or administrator will be charged with a number of tasks: inventorying the property your family member owned at death, having it appraised if necessary, notifying relatives and known creditors about the death, and publishing a notice in the local newspaper that's intended to ferret out unknown relatives and creditors.

After final debts and creditors are paid, the property will be passed to the survivors. The entire process generally takes 9 to 18 months -- although some probate procedures drag on for several years before the property is finally divvied up and distributed.

Advantages of probate

Despite the common laments about probate being a costly and confusing procedure that's long on paperwork and delays and short on satisfaction, in some situations it may actually be helpful. For example:

  • Probate sets an absolute deadline by which creditors must file formal claims against an estate or be forever barred from collecting -- useful if your relative faced big debts or the possibility of a large court judgment.
  • Probate makes the process of dividing up a person's assets transparent, since the public can generally get access to a will once it's filed in probate court. This can be handy when survivors feud over property to which they feel entitled -- a situation that crops up all too often. Facing a will's written directives can sometimes help calm the greedy or overanxious.

Disadvantages of probate

Time and money are the two big drawbacks to probate, and they're the common reasons that are given for making every effort to avoid it.

  • It typically takes nearly a year or more from the first contact with a probate court until property is finally distributed to survivors.
  • The entire procedure is often costly in itself -- usually involving fees for attorneys, appraisers, accountants, and the probate court. Of these, the biggest bite goes to probate lawyers, who can take a set percentage of the fair market value of the property just for completing and filing the required paperwork.
  • All these costs are paid from estate property, and they generally eat up 5 percent or more of its total value. For example, if your relative owns $400,000 worth of property at death, probate fees alone are likely to run $20,000 or more.

Ways to avoid probate

Prompted by consumer outrage over the delays and high costs imposed by probate, courts, legislatures, and state governments h ave devised a number of ways for property to change hands after death without having to go through probate. If your family member doesn't have one or more of these methods in place, explain why she might want to consider them.

  • Payable-on-death accounts: Also called Totten trusts, tentative trusts, and revocable bank account trusts, payable-on-death accounts allow those who own financial accounts to name specific beneficiaries to automatically take the remaining amount when they die. Banks, savings and loans, and credit unions all offer these accounts or can add named beneficiaries to an existing account at no extra charge.
  • Named beneficiaries on retirement accounts: An entire generation of retirement accounts -- such as IRAs, Keoghs, 401(k)s, and 403(b)s -- came into being while your relative was likely still in the workforce. Such accounts can specify a beneficiary and a backup to receive any remaining funds at death without requiring a court proceeding.
  • Transfer-on-death registrations: A law called the Uniform Transfer-on-Death Securities Registration Act allows people to register an individual to take their stocks, bonds, and brokerage accounts at death, without probate, similar to a pay-on-death account. This simplifying law has been adopted in every state except Louisiana and Texas.

In a few states -- including California, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio -- a car owner can also register a vehicle so that a named beneficiary automatically takes title to it at death.

And laws in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio also allow real estate to be transferred through transfer-on-death deeds.

  • Joint ownership: In most states, property will avoid probate if title to it is held jointly. When one property owner dies, the surviving joint owner or owners indicated on the ownership documents automatically get the deceased owner's share -- again, without involving the probate courts. Houses, large bank accounts, and other property of value are good candidates for joint ownership that avoids probate. However, the property will pass through probate when the last surviving owner dies unless he or she has taken steps to transfer it though some other probate-avoiding method.

Depending on the state and type of property involved, joint ownership is called "joint tenancy with right of survivorship," "tenancy by the entirety," or "community property with right of survivorship."

  • Living trusts: Living trusts, also called revocable living trusts , were created for the express purpose of avoiding probate. The concept is simple: During life, property owners complete a declaration that transfers property such as real estate, stocks, and bank accounts to a trustee.

The trustee is often the same person who created the living trust -- and he or she remains free to use, spend, or sell it while alive. At death, the property in the living trust passes automatically to the person or people named as "successor trustees." A living trust operates much like a will, except that the property owner must go through the legalities of transferring ownership of property to the trust. The other important difference: Probate is not required when ownership of the trust property shifts to the successor trustee.

  • Simplified procedures for small estates: Many state laws provide that a small amount of personal property can be transferred free of probate, or processed through a greatly simplified procedure. The definition of "small" varies widely among the states, from a low of $3,000 to a high of $150,000. Also, in some states, certain kinds of valuable property -- such as cars and real estate -- are excluded from the total.

You might have to do some sleuthing to find out the legal rules for your relative's state. Begin an Internet search by entering the name of his state and the terms court and probate in the browser. Be sure to go to the official court site, not one operated by someone trying to sell probate-avoidance services.

Barbara Kate Repa

Barbara Kate Repa, a lawyer and journalist, has devoted her career to editing and writing about legal issues for consumers. See full bio

about 2 months, said...

My parents died 8 years ago . - my sister is the executor -she has distributed some of the stocks - but for these past 8 years i have been paying property tax , insurance and utilities on a property that is to be mine if she ever settles this thing :/ there is still stock left that has been paying divedends this whole times - am i entitles to those dividends even though its not settled - Im in a spot , my sister , the executor is a lawyer by trade and up untill now i have been listening to what she tells me in regards with paying tazes etc. i feel as if im being swindled and pimped - whats says you ???

12 months, said...

I realize there are those who hate the idea of going through probate, and I certainly understand why… there are expenses associated with probate, and it does stretch on and on in terms of time. But hey, in some states, depending on what we’re inheriting, it’s necessary to file for probate and go through it. Sure, just to avoid probate some people, heirs, will get their attorney to implement a Payable on Death (POD) Account, or establish Joint Property Ownership or Joint Tenancy with a Right of Survivorship; or Tenancy by the Entirety, or even Transfer on Death Registrations… Just to avoid probate. On the other hand, these things cost money in terms of attorney fees and retainer… As do trusts. To avoid going through the probate process. But then middle class heirs miss the opportunity (if they are having cash flow issues, which they often are) of applying for one of the better inheritance loans or probate loans, or inheritance advance assignments. A probate advance gives middle class heirs the ability to experience what they think rich heirs experience – fast cash, in this case inheritance money, on hand to do whatever they want – start investing early, help relatives out financially, pay off credit card debt completely, or whatever. Watching heirs like this is kind of like looking at a TV show showing middle class people coming into real money for the first time in their life. Those elated heirs start researching fast inheritance loans and probate loans, loans on inheritance, inheritance advances, probate cash advance or inheritance cash advance or probate advance funds…and then get approved as fast as they can by one of the more popular inheritance loans companies or probate loans companies like, or or maybe That advance inheritance money or probate cash appears to turn frustration and unhappiness with the probate process into brighter, happier moods… plus increased confidence in the estate process in general. So maybe it cost a little in time and money to go through probate, but probate also allows for certain fast cash capabilities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And sometimes that’s a critical thing.

about 5 years, said...

The estate planning issue is very complex. This well written piece gave me the opportunity to explore options that I was unaware of.

over 5 years, said...

over 5 years, said...

thanks for the article, but if you know [how to do probate] ( "how") - a lot of disadvantages mentioned here can be avoid

over 6 years, said...

Answers question about joint ownership and leads me to learn more about simplified procedures for small estates.

over 6 years, said...

With the decline of my husband's health, as survivor, I have many ideas about providing secure transfers of money and property, upon my death, to our son.

over 6 years, said...

My family and I used United Planning Group to set up our trust. We're very happy with their service and it was only a one-time, life-time fee. It included all of the settlement process as well after we pass on.

almost 7 years, said...

my mother signed power of attorney to my cousin and she had already been diaonise with dementia now my cousin is trying to sell everything i am the only child and without a lawyer iam losing the court will not listen to me and the court appointed lawyer doesnt have my mothers best interest at heart do you know of anybody that will help me before its too late

almost 7 years, said...

I have seen a lady have a Revocable Living Trust and her kids file some trumped up "dimentia" to the State/APS. Guardianship was assigned by the State. They immediately had her unable to access the money she has saved since her retirement. But it is wrong to be so generous to the amount of 75.00 a week as Her allowance. It is Her money not any of her kids Father had anything to do with the money has today. She wants her kids out of the situation, But She was days away from having the Trust modified to Her wishes before the children called APS and they immediately froze Her up. Have they succeeded in burying the ground?

almost 7 years, said...

simple outlining of the issues involved helped bring down my stress level, since I have to deal with my 82-year-old aunt who keeps delaying putting things in order for herself and her 61-year-old, mentally disabled son.

almost 7 years, said...

Hello nancyluc, Thank you very much for your question. If you'd like, you can post your question in our Ask & Answer section, here: ( ). Good luck. -- Emily | Community Manager

almost 7 years, said...

I am the trustee of my fathers estate and he had several checking accounts and CD's - I accidently transferred one of his CD to his regular checking account instead of the trust checking which are at the same bank. I am co owner of the CD - am I going to have a problem putting the money in the correct Trust account so I can pay the family what the Trust says.. I am disabled and get confused easily but none of the other siblings would help me, I did all the care of my dad, doctors, dentist, grocery shopping and now I have this and I am scared that I made a big mistake and will cause the estate to go to probate the CD was 100.000 but I am a joint owner and we live in California. I can not sleep as I am so worried about this and afraid I did something terrible. It was such a huge job as I had my Dad for 5 years and became sick at the same time. Now once again I have this burden and just want to get everyone off my back. No one ever helped me only when they wanted to borrow money from the trust. Please if anyone is out there please answer me as it is making me ill. thank you and God bless you if you can ease my mind

about 7 years, said...

I'm executor of my mother's estate which isn't much tho my brother & sis-in-law think so. They removed her stock certificates, deed to her burial plot, her prepaid funeral certificate and paid life insurance policies from her files before they abandoned her. They can't sell or get refunds from any of those without her preseance & signiture. They swindled from her what they were to inheirit and believe they'll try to use these documents as leverage to get more. Think the probate court will find that interesting?

over 7 years, said...

riverside because of the economy funerals, memorial breakfast or brunch has to be paid in cash. i know they would not wait for any $ to come in. chica60 what i read so far the joint tenancy is the way to go upon death ywww

over 7 years, said...

you just answered my question on my home car and boat joint tenancy with my daughter tyvmmm

about 8 years, said...

My mom has been awarded guardian of the state of Texas. If she dies while under their guardianship, how will our family be able to arrange for the funeral and funds to pay for it?

almost 9 years, said...

My mother hired an attorney and he drew up a pay on death deed to transfer her house to my brother on her death and we went to her bank and she signed a form that her bank account to be divided equally between her four children upon her death. Would this be enough to avoid probate?