A probate proceeding may involve either formal or informal procedures. Traditionally, probate proceedings were governed by formal procedures that required the probate court to hold hearings and issue orders involving routine matters. Consequently, the legal costs of probating an estate could be substantial. States that have adopted the UPC provisions on probate procedures allow informal probate proceedings that remove the probate court from most stages of the process, with the result that informal probate is cheaper and quicker than formal probate. Most small estates benefit from an informal probate proceeding.
The probate process begins when the personal representative files with the clerk of the probate court a copy of the death certificate along with the will and a petition to admit the will to probate and to grant letters testamentary, which authorize him or her to distribute the estate. Although the personal representative usually files the probate petition, it can be filed by any person who has a pecuniary interest in the will. In states governed by the UPC, the personal representative must elect whether to proceed with formal or informal probate at the time of filing. However, a probate proceeding may be switched from informal to formal during the course of administration, if issues so warrant.
In a formal probate proceeding, a hearing must be held to establish the death of the testator, the residency of the decedent, the genuineness of the will, its conformance with statutory requirements for its execution, and the competency of the testator at the time the will was made. These requirements are usually fulfilled by the attesting witnesses who were present at the time the will was made and who certify that it was properly executed. The number of attesting witnesses is prescribed by law. If fewer than the required number witness a will, it will be declared void, and the testator's property will pass according to the laws of descent and distribution.
When some or all of the witnesses to a will are unavailable, special steps are taken. If the required witnesses have died before the testator, the person offering the will must offer proof of death, in addition to evidence of the genuineness of the signatures and any other proof of execution available. The UPC simplifies witness issues by permitting the admission of "self-authenticating" wills. These wills contain a statement
signed by the witnesses that attests to the competency of the testator and other statutory requirements. Self-authentication relieves the witnesses of the burden of appearing in court and the personal representative of costly procedures if the witnesses are unavailable.
If no one objects to the will at the hearing, it will be admitted to probate.
Informal probate proceedings generally do not require a hearing. The personal representative files the death certificate and will, along with a petition to admit the will under informal probate. The clerk of probate court reviews the submissions and recommends to the court that the will be probated. Once the court issues the order for informal probate, the personal representative files a series of forms that demonstrate that notice has been given to all interested parties about the probate, the decedent's creditors have been paid, and the estate's assets have been collected, appraised, and distributed to the designated heirs.
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