If you find yourself having to respond to the death of a
family member or loved one, an essential step will be to prove the validity of
the deceased’s will through the probate process. In essence, probate refers to the process of
providing the notice of the decedent’s death and filing the decedent’s last
signed will with the court in the county of the decedent’s domicile. An heir, or a named personal representative of
the deceased, must follow specific steps to complete the deceased’s estate and
complete the proscribed final affairs.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, as in most other states, there are
several specific tasks involved in the probate process. Briefly, these steps will include collecting
the deceased’s assets, sending notice to creditors, notifying insurance companies,
filing papers with the probate court, filing tax returns, and distributing
assets to heirs.
- Collecting Assets – the first step an executor
must take is to collect the deceased’s assets.
This may include contacting local and national banks and financial
institutions for account information and balances held on the date of the
decedent’s death. Often decedents own
real estate which will require obtaining deeds from the county recorder’s office. Other assets carrying a certificate of title,
such as automobiles, recreational vehicles and water craft, should be
collected. Items of tangible property,
such as jewelry and collectibles, should be secured and place in a safe place.
- Sending Notice to Creditors – depending on the
jurisdiction, notice to creditors will be published, by law, in a local newspaper
with adequate circulation. Known
creditors should be notified directly of the decedent’s death so they may
submit final bills. After adequate
review, legitimate bills should be paid by the executor and any claims that
seem invalid may be challenged by the decedent’s personal representative.
- Notifying Insurance Companies – all insurance policies,
including annuities and life insurance, should be identified and the issuing
entities should be notified of the decedent’s death. Most financial entities will issue a claim
form in response to the death notice, requesting a copy of the death
certificate. Claims instructions for
each entity must be followed precisely.
- Filing with the Probate Court – the decedent’s
representative should obtain the assistance of a probate attorney to file the
necessary forms with the local court house.
These forms may include a petition to probate the decedent’s will and appoint
a personal representative, as well as the personal representative’s oath and
letters of administration.
- Filing Tax Returns – the court-appointed personal
representative is responsible for filing the decedent’s final federal and state
tax returns. If any taxes are owed, the
personal representative is responsible for making such payments. In the event the value of the estate exceeds
national and state death tax exemptions, it may be necessary to file death tax
returns and pay any applicable death taxes owed.
The probate process may
become more complex if a party challenges the validity of the will. At this point, it may become even more
important to seek the advice and counsel of a reputable probate attorney. It is the personal representative’s duty to
deliver the assets to the proper beneficiaries.
If there is any doubt, rely upon the advice of an estate planning
attorney to help you determine the validity of gifts under the will.
- Distributing Assets – after paying claims,
debts, and taxes as noted above, the personal representative should read the
will carefully and determine who receives the remaining assets of the decedent. In the event the will is unclear, the personal
representative may petittion the probate judge for direction on how to
proceed. After all distributions are delivered,
the probate process is complete and the estate is usually closed by filing a closing
statement through the probate court.