When a person dies, the assets that are left behind become part of the decedent’s estate. The law requires those assets to pass through what is known as “probate” before they can be legally transferred to the intended beneficiaries or legal heirs. Whether you are involved in probate as an executor/personal representative or a beneficiary/heir, a basic understanding of the probate process in Missouri is essential.
There are several objectives of the probate process, including:
- Locating and inventorying the decedent’s property
- Locating beneficiaries or determining who the legal heirs are
- Notifying creditors of the estate
- Paying creditor claims
- Litigating challenges to the Last Will and Testament when applicable
- Calculating and paying taxes
- Effectuating the legal transfer of estate property to beneficiaries or heirs
If the decedent executed a Last Will and Testament prior to death, the estate is considered a “testate” estate. When no Will was left behind, the estate is an “intestate” estate. In the case of a testate estate, an executor is usually appointed to oversee the probate process. When the estate is an intestate estate, the court will appoint a personal representative to the position.
The terms of a Will also determine what happens to the decedent’s assets at the end of the probate process. If the decedent dies intestate, Missouri intestate succession laws determine what happens to the estate assets by first establishing who the legal heirs of the estate are and then distributing the assets accordingly.
Before those assets can be distributed, however, creditors of the estate must be notified by the executor/personal representative. After proper notification has been given, creditors have a statutory time frame within which they must file a claim. Those claims are then reviewed by the administrator/personal representative and, if approved, paid out of the estate assets. All personal and estate taxes must also be paid out of the estate assets prior to final distribution of assets.
Formal probate in Missouri typically takes months, if not years, to complete. Because of the variety of complicated legal issues involved in the probate of an estate, an executor or personal representative should retain the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to assist during the process. Making a mistake during probate can cost the estate, and therefore the beneficiaries or heirs, a significant amount of money and/or time which is why an attorney should be consulted and retained to assist.