What is probate?

Simply put, probate is the process of transferring property after the person who owned it has passed away.  Generally, you must go through probate to transfer property from the deceased to the person who is going to receive it.  Probate is also when the debts of the deceased, if any, are paid.  The process is sometimes called estate administration, but it is more commonly known as probate. 

You probate the estate according to the will, following the will’s direction as to who gets what.  If there is no will, you will probate the estate according to the state’s intestate succession law, which governs the distribution of property after someone dies without a will.  For my reasons why you need a will – or estate plan – see my blog on this site entitled My Top Five Reasons to Have an Estate Plan.

In Maryland, the probate process starts by filing paperwork with the Register of Wills in the county where your loved one lived.  You can find them at https://registers.maryland.gov.  To begin the process, you will need your loved one’s will, if there is one, and the death certificate.  You will also need to know the approximate value of your loved one’s estate.  This ballpark approximation will determine whether your loved one’s estate goes through the regular probate process or the simplified process for small estates.    

In Maryland, so-called small estates are those with a value of $50,000 or less, or $100,000 or less if the spouse is the sole heir.  If you are opening an estate for someone who passed before October 1, 2012, the limit for a small estate is $30,000 or $50,000 if the spouse is the sole heir.  If the estate does not qualify as a small estate, you will be opening a regular estate.

Small estates are quicker and simpler to probate.  In fact, you can be finished with the entire process within a month, but it rarely takes longer than six months.  With a regular estate, the process can take between nine months and two years if there are no disputes.

The person in charge of administering the estate is called the “personal representative.”  After filing the appropriate paperwork, the Register of Wills will issue what are called letters of administration.  The letters of administration allow the personal representative to conduct the business of administering the estate – paying its debts and distributing its property.

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