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What is probate and how does it work?

You may have heard of the term "probate" without ever really understanding just what is means. In simple terms, probate is the process of transferring property previously owned by a decedent to the beneficiaries and heirs after the death of the person.

Probate goes through this process under the supervision of the courts. Life insurance policies with designated beneficiaries in place and bank accounts with the designation of "payable on death" to another, living person can bypass the probate process.

There are other ways to avoid probate, and they include:

-- Gifts

-- Joint tenancies with rights of survivorship on financial accounts

-- Certain trusts

However, most other assets will be subject to the probate process, which may or may not wind up contested by the heirs, or those who feel entitled to heirship rights.

If an estate becomes contested during the probate process, it will most likely need to be handled by an experienced estate attorney. However, it is entirely possible for a lay person to administer probate on a simple, uncontested estate. Should there be questions, an estate attorney can be consulted as needed.

Duties of the administrator during the probate process includes:

-- Filing the final tax returns and paying any balances owed;

-- Collecting, inventorying and securing all of the decedent's property;

-- Paying off legitimate debts owed by the decedent;

-- Collecting the rights to any dividends or income;

-- Settling disputes;

-- Distributing assets and all remaining property to the beneficiaries and heirs.

In some circumstances, the estate administrator or executor can submit a bill to the estate for their services upon the settlement of the probated estate.

Source: Findlaw, "The Probate Basics," accessed Nov. 11, 2016

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