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Before a Will takes effect, it must go through a process called "probate."

The terms of a Will that goes through probate, and the assets it covers, become part of a record available to the public.

Probate, and ways to avoid probate, are discussed in:

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What is Probate?

"Probate" is a court-supervised process that determines whether a document is a valid Will. Once a Will is declared to be valid, the court generally supervises the payment of a deceased's debts and disbursement of the remaining assets as provided in the Will.

In a broader sense, "probate" also includes the process by which the assets your Will covers are distributed.

When a Will is probated it becomes a document available to the public. The public also gets to see the assets which are being probated.

What Happens During Probate?

The probate process has four basic steps:

Step 1. Proving the validity of a Will

While procedure varies from state to state, in general, after a death:

  • The person named in a Will to administer the estate (known as Personal Representative, Personal Administrator or Executor) files the Will in the probate court of the county where the deceased lived.
  • The court reviews the Will to be sure it meets the local legal requirements (such as the correct number of witnesses).
  • The people who would receive the assets if no Will existed are then contacted. The court gives these people the opportunity to contest the Will. For example, if Jane leaves everything in her Will to Richard, her significant other but not legal spouse, her brothers and sisters will be given the opportunity to contest the legality of the Will.

While proving the validity of a Will is usually routine, challenges can take a long time -- sometimes years. Be sure to read Protecting Your Will Against Challenges.

Step 2. Catalogue assets and debts

In addition to proving the validity of a Will, the Personal Representative/Executor Will present the court with a list of your property, your debts, and who will inherit your property under the terms of the Will. Your Personal Representative/Executor will be able to do this job much faster if you have an up-to-date Home Inventory, List Of Assets and Document Inventory. See these links for our ready-to-use forms.

Step 3. Pay claims, debts and taxes

  • Your Personal Representative/Executor is usually required to advertise your death in local newspapers to inform creditors to make claims.
  • Creditors are usually paid before your assets are distributed to your beneficiaries.
  • A good bill payment system can help your Personal Representative/Executor minimize the time it takes for your heirs to receive their shares of your estate.
  • A Personal Representative/Executor is required to file income and estate tax returns if required, and to pay the taxes, if any.

Step 4. Distribute Assets to Beneficiaries

Once the first three steps have been completed, assets can be released to your beneficiaries as provided in your Will.

How Much Does Probate Cost?

Probate expenses vary with where you live and the size of your estate. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has estimated the typical cost of probate to be $1,500. However, it can be much higher if your estate is large, if your Will is contested or there are other lawsuits to handle.

How Long Does Probate Take?

The average estate is probated in six to twelve months, depending on the state’s probate laws and the complexity of the estate. Many states have procedures to simplify probate and speed the process for small estates. On the other hand, if there are challenges or if the estate is particularly complex, probate can go on much, much longer.

Can My Beneficiaries Get Money As An Advance During Probate?

Yes. It is generally possible for your survivors to get funds to live on after a Will is probated, while your estate is being administered.

What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Probate?

The following chart describes the basic advantages and disadvantages of probate. If, after reading the chart, you'd like to learn more about avoiding probate, read: Will Substitutes - Avoiding Probate.


Advantages to Probate

Disadvantages to Probate

Helps assure that the instructions in your Will are carried out.

Court costs and fees.


Increases the chances that all concerned parties will be informed of your death.


Usually time-consuming for your Personal Representative/Executor and possibly your heirs as well.

Provides for the orderly administration of your assets.

Can cause delays in transferring your assets to your heirs.

Aside from a Will, no additional legal documents are required for passage of assets.

Subjects the amount, identity and distribution of your assets to public view.


What If My Estate Is Small?

If the size of your estate is less than an amount set by state law, your estate may qualify for a simplified proceeding for small estates. These proceedings require less paperwork, cost less and take less time.

The maximum amount of assets that can pass through a Will without a standard probate process can vary from as little as $5,000 to as much as $100,000.

If you'd like to check the limit in your state, visit the following site of Cornell University and select your state: offsite link.

Some states also have a procedure called Summary Probate that allows expedited processing of your estate even if the size of your estate is greater than the limit for "small" estates.