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What Happens in Probate Court: A Guide to the Probate Process

Losing someone close is painful enough. The last thing you need is to feel lost in probate court. All the legal terms and paperwork can make the probate process feel like a maze. 

Where do you even start? How does the probate process work? What’s expected of you as an executor?

At Cary Estate Planning, our goal is to empower you with an understanding of what probate involves so you know what to anticipate. 

To simplify things, we’ll break down the key phases of the probate process and prepare you for what’s ahead so that you can move forward with confidence and clarity.

How Probate Works

When someone passes away, leaving property that needs to be transferred, the probate court oversees settling their estate. 

The court validates the deceased person’s will, authorizes an executor, notifies beneficiaries, and supervises the distribution of assets. This ensures the wishes stated in the will are properly carried out.

The probate process begins when the deceased person’s will is filed with the probate court in the county where they lived. The executor named in the will petitions the court to admit the will to probate, which officially starts the legal process. 

The court then holds a hearing to validate the will, appoint the executor, and issue them legal authority to act on behalf of the estate.

Initiating the Probate Process

To get the ball rolling, the executor named in the will files an application for probate and letters. This petition formally initiates the legal process. If there is no will, the person seeking to administer the estate must file an application to be appointed as personal representative of the estate.

There are a few key requirements for properly initiating the probate process:

  • Filing the will – The original will, signed and executed according to state law, must be filed with the probate court. This should happen as soon as possible after the death.
  • Filing the petition – The executor must file a petition asking the court to admit the will and officially open probate.
  • Notifying interested parties – Notice of the initial probate hearing must be sent to all beneficiaries, known creditors, and anyone else with an interest in the estate.

Our experienced probate attorneys can handle these filings to ensure everything is done correctly right from the start.

The Probate Hearing

In the initial probate hearing, the judge validates the will, appoints an executor, and issues legal authority to distribute the estate assets. This important court appearance usually lasts less than an hour but involves some key events:

  • Validating the will – The judge reviews the will to ensure it was properly executed and witnessed under state law. The court must find the will legally valid.
  • Appointing the executor – Also referred to as a personal representative, this person is officially appointed by the judge and given legal responsibility for managing the estate and distributing assets.
  • Issuing letters testamentary – These court orders prove the executor has legal authority to act on behalf of the estate. Financial institutions will need to see these letters before granting access to assets.
  • Addressing contests – If any interested party believes the will is invalid or there are issues with the executor’s appointment, they can voice objections at the hearing. The judge will either resolve disputes then and there or could delay probate pending litigation if needed.

Our estate planning attorneys are well-versed in probate law and can provide invaluable representation during the hearing.

Responsibilities of the Executor

After the initial hearing, the real work begins for the executor. Their key responsibilities include:

  • Locating assets – The executor must identify and secure all assets owned by the deceased, from financial accounts to personal property. Attorneys can help access and appraise assets.
  • Paying debts and taxes – Any unpaid debts like credit cards or loans and taxes owed by the deceased must be paid out of the estate. The executor will also need to file any outstanding tax returns.
  • Keeping beneficiaries informed – Throughout the process, the executor provides progress reports to beneficiaries named in the will so they remain up to date.
  • Distributing assets – Once debts and taxes are settled, the executor petitions the court for final approval to distribute the remaining assets to heirs according to the will’s instructions.

For most estates, the entire probate process must be completed within 9-12 months. But for large or contentious estates, it can take over 2 years to fully close out probate. Having our experienced estate planning attorneys to rely on for guidance can make the executor’s job much smoother.

Distributing the Estate Assets

The final step in probate is distributing the remaining assets to heirs after paying debts and taxes. The executor will petition the court for approval of a distribution plan. All beneficiaries will be notified of the final hearing, where the judge will authorize and approve asset distributions.

If the deceased left a will, assets are distributed according to the instructions in the will. If there is no will, assets are distributed according to state law under the rules of intestacy. The executor has a fiduciary duty to ensure all beneficiaries receive what they are entitled to under the will or state statute.

Finally, once all assets are distributed, and the court approves a final accounting, the estate can be closed, and probate ends. The executor is discharged from their duties once the judge issues a formal closure order.

How a North Carolina Probate Attorney Can Help

Navigating the probate process on your own can be overwhelming. An experienced North Carolina probate lawyer can provide invaluable legal guidance. 

Here are some of the key ways having a lawyer assist you through probate can make a significant difference:

  • Ensuring proper filings – Probate involves many precisely filed legal documents. An attorney handles these filings to avoid any mistakes or delays.
  • Providing court representation – Your lawyer can appear on your behalf in probate court for all hearings to advocate for the estate’s interests every step of the way.
  • Valuing and appraising assets – Determining accurate values for property, investments, and personal items requires professional appraisers. Your attorney coordinates asset appraisals.
  • Settling debts and taxes – An experienced lawyer works with banks, creditors, tax agencies, and other entities to settle outstanding debts and estate taxes.
  • Communicating with beneficiaries – Your attorney handles all required communications with beneficiaries to keep them updated throughout the probate process.
  • Avoiding disputes – From mediation to litigation, your attorney works to resolve any beneficiary disputes over the will to keep probate on track.

Having an experienced probate attorney in your corner provides the legal knowledge and diligence needed to empower you to fulfill your duties as executor from start to finish.

Don’t Navigate Probate Court Alone – Let Cary Estate Planning Guide You

Losing someone you love is hard enough without having to manage probate alone. The probate system has many complex filings, court procedures, and deadlines to navigate. Without an experienced law firm on your side, delays, disputes, and mistakes can derail the process and add even more stress and frustration.

At Cary Estate Planning, our probate attorneys have helped countless North Carolina families handle probate smoothly and efficiently. From filings and court hearings to appraisals, taxes, and final distributions, we know exactly how to see an estate through probate from start to finish.

Most importantly, we’ll be there for you each step of the way with compassionate, personalized legal guidance during this difficult time. Don’t go through probate alone. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

Author Bio

Paul Yokabitus

Paul Yokabitus is the CEO and Managing Partner of Cary Estate Planning, a Cary, NC, estate planning law firm. With years of experience in estate and elder law, he has zealously represented clients in various legal matters, including estate planning, guardianship, Medicaid planning, estate administration, and other cases.

Paul received his Juris Doctor from the Campbell University School of Law and is a North Carolina Bar Association member. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named among the “Best Attorney in Cary” in 2016 and 2017 by Cary News and Rising Star in 2020-2023 by Super Lawyers.

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