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The loss of a loved one is difficult enough without the added complication of probating an estate. There are many issues that come up at the outset of — and throughout — estate administration, such as how bills will get paid, who receives an inheritance and how to gain access to the estate holder’s accounts.
What Is Probate?
Probate is, in the simplest terms, the process of administering a person’s estate after their death. If there is a last will and testament, this will mean ensuring that the will is valid, executing the will’s instructions, and paying applicable debts and taxes before distributing the remainder of the estate to beneficiaries.
If there is not a will, as has been the case with even some big-name celebrities, probate will mean using state law to determine how to distribute assets.
What Does a Probate Attorney Do?
Probate attorneys work closely with the executors and beneficiaries of an estate in order to ensure that the estate holder’s affairs are settled. A probate lawyer may be needed whether or not the estate holder had a last will and testament.
A probate lawyer can handle a number of specific tasks during the probate process:
- Identifying assets
- Collecting life insurance proceeds
- Securing appraisals for property
- Resolving income taxes
- Managing the estate’s finances during probate
- Preparing and filing required documents
- Transferring assets to beneficiaries
- Overseeing final disbursement of inheritances
- Connecting beneficiaries to probate lawyers in other states, if needed
A probate attorney is also responsible for navigating potential delays, such as those due to unexpected potential beneficiaries, assets in multiple states, unusual or hard-to-assess assets like mineral rights, or, in unfortunate circumstances, the beneficiaries of the estate being in conflict.
Do I Need to Hire a Probate Attorney Near Me?
Not all estates absolutely require hiring a probate attorney. Here are a few of the circumstances that make it relatively simple to probate an estate yourself:
1. Assets are straightforward and previously designated. For example, if the primary assets are life insurance, bank accounts and personal property, and all have been designated to beneficiaries or are held in joint ownership, such as with a spouse, it is usually fairly easy to transfer the assets.
2. Estate qualifies for a small estate affidavit. In Massachusetts, estates with less than $25,000 in personal property — not counting one motor vehicle — may qualify for this exception to formal probate proceedings.
3. Beneficiaries are not contesting. While conflict among beneficiaries is certainly not the only reason to hire a probate lawyer, if the estate is relatively simple and everyone is on the same page, it might be possible to probate the estate without legal help.
Why Should I Hire a Probate Attorney?
Even in the most straightforward of circumstances, a probate attorney can help simplify the process and allow you to attend to your family and your own needs during this time.
In the event that the estate holder had business interests, vehicles, bank accounts, personal property or real property — that is, anything attached to land — without clear beneficiaries, a probate lawyer can ensure a complete and thorough review of the assets and help families avoid infighting.
Other reasons to consider hiring a probate attorney near you include:
- Protecting the estate against invalid debt claims
- Speeding up the probate process for the family
- Filing court documents and other paperwork
- Paying taxes and debts quickly and accurately
- Answering questions and reducing the stress of probate
- Sending notices to appropriate parties about the process
In some cases, an estate may appear to be thorough and easy to navigate on the surface, but upon digging in gets more complicated.
Incomplete wills — or out-of-date wills that do not cover assets acquired after the will was drafted — will likely require the assistance of a probate lawyer.
Other times, unexpected creditors may emerge. Before handing over money to everyone who comes calling, executors and other loved ones may want to consider hiring a probate lawyer to ensure that debt claims are valid.
In some cases, it may be the executor who is contested by the beneficiaries. When this happens, it may be in the best interest of the estate to hire a probate attorney who can ensure that the process is handled with the utmost care and integrity.
A probate lawyer’s job is not just to complete a checklist of tasks but to provide expertise and comfort throughout the process. Whether you are the executor of the estate or a beneficiary who wants to ensure a smooth probate process, knowing that you have an objective party who understands the complexities of the probate process on your side can be invaluable.
How Can a Probate Lawyer Help Me Plan My Estate?
While probate is a process that begins after an estate holder dies, that does not mean that a probate lawyer only is useful at that stage. In order to enable your family to avoid complicated probate proceedings, hiring a probate lawyer to help you draft your will is the best way to reduce the chance that your will will be declared invalid after you pass away.
DIY wills might be an attractive alternative to hiring an estate planning lawyer, but they are risky. Many times, these wills are not detailed enough to ensure that all your bases are covered. Other times, the lack of professional and expert advice means that small details are overlooked, resulting in invalidation of the will.
The best way to avoid a lengthy and stressful probate process is to work with a probate attorney to determine the best course of action for your individual needs. Probate lawyers who also provide estate planning services can even help you determine if a will is sufficient for your estate or if you should consider a different option, such as establishing a trust.
The Law Offices of Kimberly Butler Rainen provides expert assistance with probate administration, whether we conduct the process from beginning to end or counsel you on an as-needed basis. Our services may include filing the petition to appoint the personal representative, marshaling the property, settling debts of the estate, preparing the estate tax returns, distributing inheritances to heirs, presenting the accounts to the court and closing the estate.
Contact our office to schedule your consultation.