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Understanding the probate process

After a loved one dies, the estate goes through a process called probate. The probate process can seem mysterious, and many of its steps occur behind the scenes, so the heirs and beneficiaries may receive little information about what is going on. In many cases, the deceased or the court appoints an executor to handle these issues, and the heirs simply trust that probate is going along as expected. 

One way to know if this is true regarding your loved one’s probate is to understand how the process works. It is wise to keep apprised of how probate is going and remain in contact with the executor so you can be alert to issues that may seem questionable. This is especially true if you have a great deal at stake. 

The duties of the executor 

The court must first authenticate the will, if one exists. If you are a named beneficiary, you will be part of the validation hearing and will have the opportunity to object if you question the validity or contents of the document. If the hearing goes smoothly, the executor will take over the following responsibilities: 

  • Locating the assets of the deceased, which often means searching for hidden assets  
  • Keeping the assets safe until probate is over and protecting them from depreciation 
  • Determining the value of certain assets, which may require hiring an appraiser or locating documentation for valuation 
  • Continuing to pay important bills, such as the mortgage, vehicle payments, utilities and others 
  • Notifying creditors that your loved one has passed and allowing time for creditors to file claims for outstanding debts 
  • Paying lingering debts and bills, including tax returns, which sometimes requires the liquidation of some assets 
  • When the executor has met all these and other obligations to the court’s satisfaction, the executor can then distribute the remaining assets as stipulated in the estate plan or, if no plan exists, according to California law.  

Guidance through probate 

The probate process can take anywhere from six months to a year, but if someone contests the will or file other disputes, you should expect indefinite delays. For example, you or another heir might doubt the mental capacity of your loved one at the execution of the will, or you might question the decisions of the executor. These are serious matters that involve complex legal issues, and you may want professional assistance instead of trying to handle them alone. 


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