You may have heard the term “probate court” before, but never had a need to know what they do in probate court. If you are curious now, it may be because someone close to you has passed away. Probate courts are limited jurisdiction courts, meaning they only hear certain types of cases. Typically, a probate court handles wills, trusts and estate matters along with guardianships and conservatorships.
Each state within the United States determines its own court system structure. For this reason, no two state probate courts are exactly the same. Similarities do exist, however, among many of the states. A state court is not required to have a separate probate court, but almost all do. A probate court may also have jurisdiction over additional areas of the law such as family law matters in some states.
The most common function of a probate court is to oversee the legal process known as probating an estate when a decedent dies. Often, a formal petition to probate the decedent’s estate must be filed with the court and an executor or personal representative appointed by the court. When the decedent dies intestate, or without a valid will, the court must determine who the heirs are to the estate.
Once the probate process has begun, and any heirs identified in the case of an intestate estate, the court will require the executor or personal administrator to identify and value all assets left by the decedent. All creditors of the estate must also be notified. The executor or personal representative must report to the court during the various phases of the court. In the event there is a dispute regarding the value of an asset or the validity of a creditor’s claim, the court will decide the dispute. In addition, if a will contest is filed then the probate court will preside over the litigation.