What Happens When Someone Dies Intestate?
Probate is the court-supervised process of settling a deceased person’s (decedent) estate. During this process, the deceased person’s estate will be assessed, debts will be paid, and any remaining assets will be distributed to their heirs. After their death, the decedent’s assets will be put into what is called a “probate estate.” This estate is made up of all personal property that is subject to probate, namely assets of which the deceased person was the sole owner.
Assets that are commonly subject to probate include:
- Bank accounts
- Real estate
- Cars and other vehicles
When someone has a will, it is used to guide the probate process. A will typically names an executor, guardians for any minor children, and who the deceased would like to inherit their estate. When someone dies without a valid will on record, they are said to have died intestate, and the courts will ultimately make the decisions regarding who will serve as executor and who will inherit what.
Wills must be proved as part of the probate process. According to the Tennessee code, probate is handled in the court where the deceased person lived at the time of their death.
Probate Is a Long, Costly Process
In Tennessee, probate can take approximately six months to one year to be resolved. If the deceased person’s estate is more complicated, or if someone takes issue with the will or a probate decision, it can take even longer. Probate is also an expensive process. In addition to the estate and inheritance taxes that must be paid, there are also significant probate fees. One of the only ways to avoid probate is to place your assets in a living trust.
Small Estate Probate
In Tennessee, if your estate (excluding real estate) is valued at less than $50,000, it is legally considered a small estate. If classified as a small estate, your estate does not have to go through the full probate process. Instead, it may qualify for simplified probate. When this is the case, the decedent’s executor will file an affidavit with the probate court along with the will. The courts will then decide if they may take advantage of this streamlined probate process.
Before seeking simplified probate, it is worth speaking with an attorney to ensure that this is the right path for your situation.
Preparing for the Probate Process
One of the best things you can do to prepare for probate is to establish an estate plan sooner rather than later. A good place to start is with a will. Anyone can benefit from having a valid will on record. At the very least, it will allow you to maintain some control over how your estate is divided and distributed after your death. When there is no will in place, your estate will pass to your closest relatives, as outlined by Tennessee’s intestate succession laws.
If you have a sizeable estate, or if you have specific people or organizations you’d like to inherit your estate, you should also consider establishing a trust or utilizing other estate planning methods to help protect your estate and ensure that your wishes are recognized.
Common estate planning methods that can help you prepare for probate include:
- Business succession plans
- Charitable trusts
- Irrevocable and revocable trusts
- Retirement accounts
- Special needs trusts
- Wills and pour-over wills
Seek Legal Representation
Losing a loved one is never easy. Having a trusted lawyer by your side can help you navigate the complicated probate process and provide you with peace of mind should any issues arise. It is especially important to seek legal representation when a loved one dies without a will in place. A lawyer can help you petition the courts to be named executor, guide you through any contested issues, and help ensure that minor children or dependent adults have an appropriate guardian appointed to them.
What to Do If You Are Named Executor
Executors and estate representatives have a significant responsibility. When managing the probate process, there are specific steps you must follow. Some executor responsibilities include notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying debts and court fees, and ensuring that all will directives are carried out. If you fail to fulfill your duty as an executor, you may be held accountable by the courts and by the estate’s beneficiaries.
If you were named executor of a loved one’s estate, you should consider consulting with an experienced attorney, like ours at Casey, Simmons & Bryant, PLLC. As a firm, we have extensive experience handling all types of probate cases, and we are prepared to use this experience to guide you. Contact our firm for help today.