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  • Family members are not responsible for a decedent's debts.
  • A decedent's debts are not canceled automatically.
  • Learn more about your state's probate rules.

How to Understand the Probate Process, Who is Involved, Your Rights, and How to Get Started.

Almost everyone owns things or owes debt. Most of us have both. When a person dies, a process called probate determines who gets their possessions, which creditors are paid and how much.

An important note: readers ask questions about probate issues frequently. Most questions are based on incomplete or inaccurate statements made by collection agents regarding a family’s liability for a deceased person’s debts. Under probate law, spouses and family members are not responsible for a deceased person’s debts. However, a deceased person’s debts are not canceled upon death, either. This article will help you understand the probate process, who is involved, your rights, and how to get started.

Like other areas of law, probate uses unusual words and common words in a peculiar way. For example, the deceased person is called a decedent. The decedent’s property and debts are called an estate. A beneficiary is a person who has a legal right to inherit. We will use these terms here.

Probate deals with:

  • Transferring the property of a decedent to the heirs or beneficiaries
  • Deciding if a will is valid
  • Taking care of the decedent’s financial responsibilities

In a probate case, an executor (if there is a will) or an administrator (if there is no will) is appointed by the court as personal representative to

  1. Collect the assets
  2. Pay the debts and expenses
  3. Distribute the remainder of the estate to beneficiaries

All of this happens under the supervision of a state probate court. A case can take between 9 to 18 months to complete the probate process. Some cases take more time because of beneficiaries’ or creditors’ claims.

Is Probate Required?

You may not need to go through the probate court to get title to a decedent’s property. Figuring out if you have to go to probate court depends on many issues, like the amount of money involved, the type of property involved, and who claims the property.

Deciding if involving a probate court also depends on the how the property is owned (the type of title ownership) or if there is some type of contract with beneficiaries. For example:

Type of Title: Sometimes all or some of a decedent’s property passes directly to the beneficiaries because of how the decedent owned the property. For example, in the following cases, the property goes to the survivor automatically at the instant of the owner’s death:

  • Property owned in joint tenancy
  • Property owned owned as community property with the right of survivorship
  • A joint bank account owned by several people
  • A bank account transferred to someone when the owner dies

Even in these cases, the survivor may have to take legal steps to clarify his or her ownership of the transferred property.

Type of Contract: Sometimes all or some of a decedent’s property does not need to go through probate to pass to the beneficiaries. This is because this property is a type of contract with named beneficiaries. Examples include:

  • Life insurance benefits paid to someone other than the decedent’s estate
  • Retirement benefits
  • Death benefits
  • Trusts

Starting the Probate Process

Each state has a threshold amount below which the probate process is not required. If you have the legal right to inherit personal property, like money in a bank account or stocks, and the estate is worth less than the decedent’s statutory amount, you may not have to go to court. Consult with a lawyer in your state, or your state’s statutes, to learn what the threshold amount is.

If the decedent’s property is worth more than the statutory amount, someone (presumably a family member) must go to court and start a probate case. If there is a will, the custodian of the will (the person who has the will at the time of the person’s death) must, within a certain number of days of the person’s death, take the original will to the probate court clerk’s office. He or she must also send a copy of the will to the executor (if the executor cannot be found, then the will can be sent to a person named in the will as a beneficiary).

A petitioner must start a case in court by filing a petition for probate. Details vary by state. After a probate case is filed the probate clerk sets a hearing date, and begins a series of events according to state law.

The Uniform Probate Code is intended to make probate procedures simple and inexpensive, especially for spouses. When a married person residing in a UPC state dies without a will...
...and left no parents, children, or grandchildren, the surviving spouse inherits the estate.
...and a parent survives, the surviving spouse inherits the first $50,000 and splits the rest with the parent(s).
...and a child or grandchild survives, the surviving spouse inherits the first $50,000 and splits the rest with the (grand)child.
Consult with a probate lawyer whether the decedent resided in a UPC or non-UPC state.

More About the Probate Process

Some state bar associations and state court Web sites offer more information about the probate process and costs. Consult with a lawyer who has probate process in the decedent’s state to learn more about local details.

  Probate Required When the Estate Is Larger Than This Amount Uniform Probate Code State Probate Laws
State-By-State Probate Laws. Source:
Alabama >$3,000   Title 43 Chapters 2 & 8
Alaska >$15,000 Yes Title 13
Arizona >$50K personal property or >$75K real estate Yes Title 14
Arkansas >$50K all property   Title 28
California >$150K all property or >$50K real estate   Calif. Probate Code
Colorado >$60K Yes Title 15
Connecticut >$40K   Title 45a
Delaware >$20K   Title 12
District of Columbia >$40K   Division III, Titles 18-20
Florida >$75K Yes Title XLII
Georgia No full probate required if: (i) no will, (ii) no debts owed, AND (iii) property is not contested by heirs who agreed upon how it will be distributed.   Title 44
Hawaii >$100K Yes Title 30A
Idaho >$100K Yes Title 15
Illinois >$100K   Chapter 755
Indiana >$50K   Title 29
Iowa >$25K   Title XV, Subtitle 4
Kansas >$20K   Chapter 59
Kentucky >$15K   Titles XXXIII and XXXIV
Louisiana >$75K   Civil Code Articles 880 to 899
Maine >$20K Yes Title 18 & 18-A
Maryland >$30K or >$50K if beneficiary is surviving spouse   Estates and Trusts Titles 1-16
Massachusetts >$25K   General Laws Part II Title II
Michigan >$15K   Probate Code Chapters I to XIII
Minnesota >$20K Yes Chapter 524 Uniform Probate Code
Mississippi >$12.5K   Title 91
Missouri >$40K   MRS Title XXXI
Montana >$50K Yes Title 72
Nebraska >$50K personal property or >$30K real estate Yes NRS Chapter 30
Nevada >$20K   NRS Title 12
New Hampshire No probate if decedent left will naming spouse or child as sole beneficiary.   Title LVI
New Jersey >$20K if beneficiary is surviving spouse, or >$10K if not   Title 3A and 3B
New Mexico >$50K for whole estate or >$500K tax value of residence Yes Chapter 45: Uniform Probate Code
New York >$20K   Estates, Powers and Trusts
North Carolina >$20K personal property or >$30K if beneficiary is surviving spouse   NCGS Chapter 47
North Dakota >$50K Yes Title 30.1
Ohio >$35K or >$100K if surviving spouse is beneficiary   Title 21
Oklahoma >$20K or >$200K if death occurred 5+ years ago   Titles 58, 60 and 84
Oregon >$275K   Title 12, Chapters 111-118
Pennsylvania >$25K   Title 20
Rhode Island >$15K   Title 33
South Carolina >$10K Yes Title 62
South Dakota >$50K Yes Title 29A
Tennessee >$25K   Title 32, Chapter 2
Texas >$50K or if all inheritors agree   Texas Probate Code
Utah >$100K Yes Title 75
Vermont >$10K   Title 14
Virginia >$50K personal property   Title 64.2
Washington >$100K   Title 11
West Virginia >$100K   Chapter 44
Wisconsin >$50K   Chapters 851 to 881
Wyoming >$200K   Title 2
State probate laws are not as simple as this table might suggest. Consult with a probate lawyer in the state where the decedent resided to learn the probate rules that apply.
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