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DIY Probate: How to Probate a Will Without a Lawyer

Skipping the lawyers fees may sound intriguing, but probate may be harder than you think...if you're up for it - we'll guide you through to probating a will yourself.

DIY Probate

Given how expensive probate lawyer fees can be, you might be wondering if probating a will is something you as an executor can do without legal help.

The answer? It depends.

Already having a last will and testament does make the process much more efficient, but depending on the assets of the estate (and their respective complexity) choosing to probate a will on your own may cause more harm than good.

Before deciding to take on this challenge, you should know a couple of points.

  • Is there an original copy of the will? - If not, then the probate process will likely not go smoothly and legal advice may be required to navigate the situation. If you do have the original will, you are in a solid position to consider probating it on your own terms.
  • What are the chances of the will being contested or not received well by the beneficiaries? - In cases where the beneficiaries or other parties are not happy with the contents of the deceased’s will, it may be challenged. Essentially, this means that someone is claiming that the will is invalid and therefore not to be carried out as it stands. Usually, these challenges involve the courts and other adversarial circumstances, so ensuring that the possibility of that happening is low, is indeed crucial.

Is it Possible to File Probate Without a Lawyer?

Before laying out the steps involved with probating a will yourself, it is crucial to note that this may not legally be possible, depending on your jurisdiction. Both Florida and Texas require a lawyer to file probate for the estate, whereas California does not.

Make sure to read up on the regulations regarding probate for your state or province as step zero of the DIY process. You don’t want to go through the work of compiling sophisticated information about the estate only to find out that all your work was for nothing.

How to File Probate Without a Lawyer - A Step-by-Step Guide

If you’ve read this far, there is a good chance you can probate a will on your own. Here’s each step laid out in detail below.

Step 1. Find the Appropriate Court and Petition

You will need to file for probate in the state or province where the decedent lived (also called their domicile). The documents required to complete this process may differ slightly, but you will generally need the following:

  • The valid will of the deceased (signed)
  • A certified copy of the death certificate
  • Any applicable probate forms filled out and executed

Make note that filing probate is not free. Depending on your state or province, costs may differ significantly.

Alberta has one of the lowest probate costs in Canada, with the fee being a mere $35 for estates under $10,000. Other provinces such as Quebec, charge no fees whatsoever. In Arizona, for example, a court filing costs around $300.

Step 2. Authenticating the Will

As noted above, the steps required for probate will differ for each jurisdiction.

You as the executor will need to hand in the will to the applicable court for it to be verified. During this process, the beneficiaries or other parties will have the option to contest the will if they don’t believe it to be valid. If this step goes smoothly, it can be quite expedient.

For this step to proceed, you may need to file other documents with the court, such as a death certificate or other probate forms.

Step 3. Be Appointed as Executor

Part of the step of authenticating the will involves having the executor be officially appointed. This may seem redundant as you were named the executor in the will. However, banks and other financial institutions will not allow you to move any assets without a will authenticated by the court.

Step 4. Notify All Interested Parties

Now that you have been verified as the estate’s executor, you need to make sure all the other interested parties are aware of this as well such as creditors, beneficiaries, and anyone else involved in the estate’s matters. Additionally, you may need to post a notice to creditors in your local paper to meet legislative requirements.

A quick note: Some states and provinces may require you to post a bond of probate. This is intended to protect the beneficiaries against any possible errors in the distribution of the estate. The insurer giving the bond promises to credit any beneficiaries or creditors in the event that the assets of the estate are lost. Although this may sound complicated–and rightfully so–most jurisdictions allow this step to be waived, and it is something you can put directly into your will.

Step 5. Create and Provide an Asset List

Many times, when you apply for probate, you will also need to create a comprehensive list of the estate’s assets. This includes a detailed list of the deceased’s assets, as well as some of the following:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments
  • Property
  • Insurance policies
  • Heirlooms

Once you have collected the assets, you will need to also have their value determined (have them appraised) in order to accurately state what the value of the estate is. Finally, courts are privy to asking you how the valuation was completed, so make sure to keep any and all relevant paperwork.

Step 6. Pay Off any Debts and Taxes

On top of having to file taxes for the deceased (link to my piece on estate taxes), you will also be required to submit an estate tax return and an estate income return. Note that estate tax returns are rarely filed, as the combined value of the estate would need to be at least 12.06 million dollars.

Furthermore, you are also obligated to pay off any creditors and required bills before distributing assets to the beneficiaries.

Step 6. Closing the Estate

Following the payment of all taxes and outstanding accounts, you will now be able to petition the court to finally distribute the assets to the beneficiaries. Typically, the probate court will not allow you to complete this petition without having a detailed list of all the financial transactions made thus far. This is to prove that all of the required payments have been made.

Once all of these steps have been completed, you are now free to close the estate.

As you might imagine, completing all of these arduous steps can take time–up to a year, even; Making a list of assets, filing complex tax returns, and ensuring all of the interested parties are notified, are not small tasks.

Additionally, having to deal with the courts is a very time-consuming process with a lot of paperwork. In our opinion, it takes someone dedicated, well-researched, and highly-focused to complete the probating without the help of a professional.

DIY Probate May Not Be the Best Choice.

It is always recommended that you receive advice or services from professionals, as Probate can be a lengthy and expensive proceeding. Even a slight delay or a missed form may lead to an extended proceeding.

Reach out to probate professionals like ClearEstate to help you during your time of need. We’re here to make things as simple as possible. Contact us today.

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