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The basics of probate

Probate is the process by which a person's property is dealt with after he or she dies. It is supervised by the court and doesn't include property that already has another owner or is designated to another. For example, beneficiaries are named in life insurance policies. Bank accounts might be "payable on death" to the other listed party.

You might have heard the expression of "probating a will." The purpose of this is to show the court that the person who died followed the law when he or she created his or her will. In many cases, you might have heard numerous suggestions on how you can avoid probate, such as using revocable trusts, gifts or with joint ownership with the right of survivorship. The latter is for the remaining spouse or partner when set up properly.

So what really happens in probate court? It depends on whether the process is uncontested or contested. It's generally an heir who feels slighted by the person who passed away. He or she may make the argument that the person who died didn't know what he or she was really doing when the will was made or that he or she was manipulated in some way to give a gift to someone. Most estates are not contested, though. Some of the things that must be done in probate include:

-- Collect the person's property.

-- Paying all the person's debts, taxes and claims.

-- Collecting dividends, income and more.

-- Settling disputes.

-- Distributing the person's property to the right heirs.

In most cases, someone is named to manage the affairs of the person who died. Should an executor not be named, then the court will appoint an administrator to handle the estate.

There are generally several fees that the estate has to pay, including court costs, attorney's fees and fees that the administrator or executor incurred.

If there is no will, then there could be expensive litigation over the estate. An estate administration attorney can be a huge benefit in all probate cases, providing as little or as much help as needed.

Source: FindLaw, "The Probate Basics," accessed April 15, 2016

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