Estate planning can be daunting. Not only is it a topic that requires you to answer difficult questions, it can be confusing. There are legal terms, processes, court requirements and documents to consider. To help you become a little more familiar with estate planning, this post explains one of the key things people should be familiar with.

Here is a look at probate, including what it is and what you can expect.

The basics of probate

Everybody has an estate. That word refers to all the money and property a person owns, such as a home, vehicles, retirement plans, bank accounts, possessions, heirlooms and anything else. When somebody dies these things that are part of their estate are passed to others. Before this property officially changes hands, the estate has to go through a legal process in which the courts verify everything is taken care of.

Probate is the term for that legal process. You might see references to a will or estate being probated. All that means is, the will or estate is going through this process.

What happens during probate?

The probate process is all about administering an estate. Very generally, this can be broken up into a few stages. During probate:

  • The courts will verify the will (if one exists) is valid and meets legal requirements.
  • A person will be appointed to oversee and manage the process. This person is called the executor or administrator, and is usually named in the will.
  • The executor will have the deceased’s estate inventoried and valued.
  • The estate will pay off any debts and taxes that remain.
  • And lastly, the property is distributed to heirs – according to the will, if there is one, or according to state law if there is not a will.

Every estate is different

Know that not everybody has the exact same probate experience. Some smaller estates may get through the process in a simple, streamlined manner. Other estates may require more court dates, more considerations and more work. Because of this, it’s impossible to know beforehand exactly how long the probate process might take.

One thing that remains consistent? A clear estate plan with a legal will can help take some of the pressure off of loved ones, as it is able to provide answers to questions before they even come up.