Probate Checklist - How to Open a Probate Estate

8 Steps to Opening a Probate Estate

I recently provided a complete step-by-step guide on how to open a probate estate. Here's a convenient, condensed checklist of eight steps to follow when you find yourself responsible for opening a decedent's estate and submitting his will for probate. 

#1 - Locate and Read the Decedent's Last Will and Testament.

Last Will and Testament Document
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If you believe the decedent made a last will and testament, find it and read it. This will tell you whether he named a personal representative or executor to handle his estate. If the executor is not you, turn the will over to the individual who is named -- you're done. Legally, you have no further responsibility to manage the probate estate. 

Move on to Step 3 if the decedent did not leave a will. 

#2 - Make a Complete List of the Will's Beneficiaries

Will and Testament Papers
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The decedent's will should also identify his beneficiaries -- the individuals to whom he wants to leave his property. Make a list of their names and track down contact information for them, including their addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers if possible, and email addresses. If you know that an initial beneficiary is deceased, obtain an original death certificate for him. 

#3 - Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Assets

Estate Planning Documents
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This list should include everything the decedent owned, from the cash in his wallet or bank accounts to investments, jewelry and other personal effects. It should include his furniture and collectibles, cars, boats, real estate, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and business interests. 

#4 - Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Liabilities.

Last Will and Testament Form
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This list should include all the decedent's creditors and debts, including mortgages, personal loans, utilities, credit cards and medical bills.

#5 - Meet With an Estate Lawyer

Signing will
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The executor of the will and its beneficiaries should plan to attend the first meeting with an estate lawyer, either in person or by phone. If the decedent didn't have a will, his heirs-at-law should attend as well. These are individuals who are entitled to inherit from him without a will due to a degree of kinship, such as his surviving spouse, children or grandchildren. 

Even if you don't decide to retain the services of an attorney to help you handle the estate, conferring with a professional at the onset can give you a clearer picture of what to expect and your responsibilities to the estate. 

#6 - Review and Sign the Documents Required to Open the Probate Estate

Man signing last will and testament
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Each state, and sometimes even each county, can have different requirements as to what legal documents are necessary to officially open an estate with the probate court. Ask the probate court clerk for a list of what you'll need, or the estate lawyer can help you if you've enlisted his services.

If you do decide to hire an attorney, make sure he's local so he's familiar with your particular county's probate rules. Hiring someone who practices in a different county can complicate matters and may even end up costing the estate more money for his services if he can't easily and efficiently navigate local rules because they're new to him.  

#7 - Wait to Hear From the Court

Gavel, Will and Testament
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After all the appropriate legal paperwork is filed with the probate court, you'll have to wait until the probate judge reviews the file. He'll then either admit the will or estate for probate, or he'll request additional information or documentation. Finally, he will authorize a personal representative to act on behalf of the estate and its beneficiaries by granting her "letters testamentary" or "letters of administration." 

#8 - Provide Certified Copies of Probate Orders to All Financial Institutions.

Glass front of a bank building
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The personal representative of the estate should take care of everything moving forward. She should provide copies of all orders signed by the judge and her letters testamentary to the financial institutions where the decedent's assets are located, letting them know that she's authorized to take control of them. She should also provide copies to utility companies to change these accounts into the name of the estate.


State and local laws change frequently and the above information may not reflect the most recent changes. Please consult with an attorney for the most up-to-date advice. The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice.