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What happens during the probate process?

Many Massachusetts residents are unaware of what is supposed to happen after the death of a loved one. Whether the decedent has an estate plan does not mean that probate can be automatically avoided. Surviving family members may have heard about the probate process, but do not understand how it works or what it entails.

After a loved one dies, a probate typically needs to be filed in order to administer the decedent's estate. Before even one asset can be distributed to heirs, certain tasks must be performed. One of the primary duties of the executor or administrator of the estate is to address any debts.

Creditors need to be given notice, and some or all of them will be paid. It will also need to be determined whether the estate owes any taxes. Once these matters are resolved, administrative fees get paid.

As for the estates assets, they will need to be located, inventoried and valued. Some of the assets will not need to go through probate in order to be distributed. For example, retirements accounts are passed to beneficiaries through a beneficiary designation form filled out by the decedent.

This distribution will occur despite any reference to such accounts in a will. Any jointly owned property will pass to the surviving owner without going through probate. Some Massachusetts residents title their property into trusts, which means it does not have to go through probate either.

The probate process can take months or even years, depending on the circumstances. Estate planning may be able to shorten that time. Without an estate plan, the state will determine who inherits the property according to the laws of intestacy. In some cases, the property may not end up with the person or persons the decedent would have preferred.

Source: greenbaypressgazette.com, "Avoiding probate with estate planning", Carissa Giebel, Nov. 30, 2015

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