A probate overview

Inheritance and estate plans run the gamut. They can be simple or extremely complex, but most people understand the basic concept. When somebody dies, their assets go to another person. Before that can happen, it has to go through probate—this is the part where non-lawyers can use some help. Even when there is a will, executors and family members often don’t know where to start.

Probate is the legal process of transitioning ownership. First, it places a hold on assets to make sure that the will is valid and any debts are settled. Tennessee probate court will oversee the reading of a will to make sure that assets go to the people who are supposed to get them.

Learning the language

Estate and probate law has its own vocabulary. Here are a few basic terms you’ll hear frequently.

  • Decedent – The deceased
  • Estate – The assets (and debt) of the deceased
  • Executor – A person named to oversee the execution of a will
  • Beneficiary – A person receiving assets from a will
  • Intestate – When there is no will

Personal representative/administrator – The person managing the estate: executor if there is a will, administrator if intestate

Learning the process

When somebody dies, the executor of the will or a close living relative will file the will and a petition for probate in the county where the deceased lived. Depending on which county you’re in, this will be a probate court or the local chancery court.

Next, the court officially appoints a personal representative. This is usually the executor named in the will. If there is no will, it is often a spouse or child of the deceased. The personal representative manages the estate until probate is finished and assets are distributed to the beneficiaries. This includes making debt payments, handling taxes, assorted paperwork and other maintenance.

Non-probate assets

While probate oversees the will and distribution of assets, not all of the deceased’s assets go through probate. Community property will first pass to a surviving spouse. Similarly, bank accounts, 401(k) and other assets with designated beneficiaries payable upon death are transferred separately and immediately. In Tennessee, a small estate, valued at $50,000 or less, does not need to go through probate court if it meets select criteria.

The intangibles

When the deceased has a valid under state law, the probate process is generally smooth and without conflict. Clarity is important in estate planning, but because legal language and common English are so different, many families experience unnecessary challenges in the process. Even when the decedent has left a qualified will in place, an experienced attorney can streamline the process and guide families through an unfamiliar situation during an emotional time.