The passing of a loved one can kick start a process that triggers the distribution of the deceased's assets and debts. This process, as well as the court that can oversee it, is often referred to as probate. Many people cringe when they hear the word probate, as it causes them to conjure images of embattled relatives fighting over a deceased loved one's money. Although this can and does happen, this is not the sole purpose of probate.
In fact, the probate court has several purposes. First, it can hear cases where a will exists, determining whether the will is legally valid. Second, a probate court can select an individual to administer an estate, which can be key to how the estate is handled. Third, a probate court can be responsible for tallying all assets and liabilities in an estate and distributing those assets in accordance with a deceased individual's will, or when there is no will, in accordance with the law. In conjunction with that responsibility, it can be left to the probate court to determine who qualifies under the law as a beneficiary.
The probate process does have disadvantages. Chief amongst these disadvantages is the fact that it can slow down the asset distribution process. In addition, the probate process can be costly as professionals typically need to be paid in order to value the estate and handle other legal and financial matters. However, probate is often necessary, and it can provide a family with finality when it comes to a lost loved one's estate.
That is not to say that probate is without conflict. Those who find themselves in a probate proceeding, whether in the form of a contested will or trust administration issues, should consider whether they need the assistance of a qualified legal professional. This will understanding of the options available and how best to proceed.