The probate process entails judicial officials, such as probate judges, processing the will of a decedent. State probate laws may vary, but the general process is similar across the country. Probate is the process of proving a decedent’s will. A probate judge will also oversee cases where the deceased person did not prepare a will, known as dying intestate. Depending on the size of the estate, probate can conclude quickly or take more than a year. If an estate’s value is below a certain amount, probate may become streamlined regarding property transfer. Most probate issues are county-based decisions. Aside from property, a probate court will also render judgment regarding competency and guardianship cases. The primary responsibility of a probate judge is estate administration.


What Happens without a Will or Beneficiary Contests?

If a decedent leaves a will and no beneficiary contests it, the probate judge has a minor but significant role. While laws have variations, these general steps hold when entering probate.

If the decedent dies intestate (without a will), these same general steps apply. However, the process is more complex, and the probate judge has considerably more input and oversight. The judge will appoint an administrator (executor) to inventory the estate and post newspaper notices for creditors and other interested parties. In the absence of a will, the law of intestate succession applies. Each state identifies the order in which the decedent’s next of kin can inherit; they receive notice, assets distributed, and the estate closed. 

If one or more heirs contest the will, the probate judge’s role becomes more significant and very involved. The judge will review the evidence and listen to the arguments of the contesting heirs. This process can include discovery, multiple hearings, numerous motions and responses to motions, and be years before concluding, usually entailing significant attorney fees. Eventually, a probate judge will issue rulings and opinions and can settle the contested will. At this point, the will is actionable, taking the general steps outlined above. 

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