What Is Probate Court?
Probate court is a court that handles probate and estate administration matters. The function of a probate court is multifaceted:
- to properly administer the distribution of estate assets
- adjudicate the validity of decedents' wills
- enforce valid will provisions
- issue the grant of probate
- prevent misconduct on the part of estate executors, representatives, or estate administrators
- provide for equitable estate asset distributions for decedents who die without wills
- issue a grant of administration conveying judicial approval to the personal representative to address estate administration matters
Sometimes, a probate court is referred to as a surrogate court. Probate courts do not exist in every state, and in many jurisdictions, the functions of a probate court are assumed by a chancery court or some other court of equity.
In intestate situations when there is no will, the probate court makes a determination of who is entitled to receive the decedent's estate assets and property under the applicable state's laws. A probate court is charged with the task of oversight for the distribution of the estate assets to appropriate beneficiaries. Probate courts may handle matters such as conservatorships, guardianships, changes of name, marriages, and adoptions in instances where the jurisdiction does not otherwise have a family court system.
Not all matters surfacing in probate court are consensual. Occasionally, a probate court is called upon to address contested matters. In contested matters, the probate court will review the validity and authenticity of the decedent's will. The probate court will then determine which parties are entitled to receive the decedent's estate assets and property. Interested parties in an estate administration matter may petition the probate court in situations such as when a decedent's beneficiary believes the estate is being mishandled by the executor or personal representative. The probate court has the power to compel an executor to produce a written accounting of his or her actions and work performed for the estate's administration.
In some instances, probate court is not necessary to process and complete estate administration. When assets are held jointly with a spouse, those assets will transfer directly to the surviving spouse. It is not necessary for the court to intervene. When spouses hold a joint bank account with both parties' names on the account, the same situation applies. When spouses co-own a piece of property and both of their names appear on the deed, the same rule governs. In cases where an individual has few assets and very little in terms of an estate, it is entirely possible to bypass the probate process and system completely. In situations where a decedent puts a trust into place for her estate planning, she will also likely be able to have her estate bypass the probate court process.