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Find out when it’s necessary to probate an estate

Learn about when it's necessary to probate an estate, what the deadline is, and who can be appointed to probate an estate.

Table of Contents

When is it necessary to probate an estate?

Probate is the process of transferring property and ownership after someone has died. Whether an estate will have to be probated depends on how the decedent’s (the person who has died) property is titled when they die.  For example, some or all of a decedent’s property, such as jointly held property where there is a right of survivorship (where the surviving joint owner is automatically entitled to the property) or the proceeds from a life insurance policy or a bank or retirement account that names a beneficiary, may not be part of the probate estate because it passes directly to another person by law. Property that's held in a trust created by the decedent also may not need to be probated.   

Typically, you have to probate the decedent’s estate if you need to:

  • Find out if the decedent's will is valid
  • Change title (ownership) to real estate or personal property, such as bank accounts, stocks, or bonds, that is held only in the decedent’s name without any right of survivorship
  • Pay the decedent's creditors
  • Get the decedent’s medical records
  • File the decedent’s tax returns and pay taxes

Who can be appointed personal representative of an estate?

In most cases, the court appoints a person called a personal representative to collect, manage, and transfer estate property to the devisees or heirs. If the decedent left a will, the court determines if the decedent’s will is valid. A qualified person with legal priority has the right to be appointed personal representative of the estate above anyone else.

  • If the decedent died with a will — The person with legal priority is the person named in the will to serve as personal representative or executor.
  • If the decedent died without a will — The person with legal priority is the surviving spouse. If the decedent wasn't married at the time of death, the decedent’s heirs have priority for appointment.

What's the deadline to probate an estate?

The general rule is that an estate must be probated within 3 years of the decedent’s death. However, this deadline doesn't apply to:

If the decedent has died on or after March 31, 2012, and if no proceedings were filed within 3 years of the date of death, you can file a late and limited formal probate. In some cases, you may be able to file a voluntary administration if you meet the voluntary administration criteria