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What, exactly, is probate?

We've talked a lot about probate litigation and probate matters in the past few weeks. But what, exactly, is probate, and what does it have to do with your estate?

Probate is the legal process through which the assets of your estate are transferred to other people or entities. The process is usually a combination of tasks performed by an estate administrator and those handled through the court. Probate laws are different in each state and they can range from rules for filing estate documents to rules about how much of your estate must go to spouses or children.

One of the first actions taken in probate is understanding who the legal heirs might be. You can make this easier by leaving a will, but in some cases, your will might be partially or completely trumped by law. You can't always write your existing spouse or children completely out of the will, for example, despite what television might have you believe.

Next, estate administrators or others working through the probate process will gather information about all of your assets. If you have an estate plan in place, all of this information might be documented. If not, the estate administrator or heirs might have to do a lot of research to understand where your assets are, and they might not be able to gain access to information regarding those assets immediately due to privacy laws.

The probate process also includes understanding debts that you might have left behind, using your assets to cover any outstanding debts and distributing the remaining assets according to your estate documents and the law. Working with an estate attorney to create a strong estate plan can help smooth the probate process for your eventual heirs.

Source: FindLaw, "The Probate Basics," accessed Aug. 26, 2016

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