One of the most often misunderstood terms in estate planning is “probate” and what it entails, so we answer the most common FAQs about probate here.
What is probate?
The term “probate” refers generally to the process by which the estate of a decedent (person who died) is administrated and distributed to the heirs and/or people named in a will. Probate is a court proceeding that is handled by a personal representative of the estate represented by an attorney and follows the rules of the Illinois Probate Act.
I have a will; doesn’t that avoid probate?
Having a will does not avoid probate. Rather, the will allows you to control parts of the probate process by naming an executor of your choice, by indicating who will receive your assets and in other ways. Without a Will, the probate process, including who handles it and who receives your assets, is governed by the Probate Act. A will does not avoid probate, but it allows you to control aspects of the probate process.
What if I have a small estate?
Small estates are not subject to the probate process. In Illinois, a small estate is any estate in which the total gross value of the personal property of the decedent is less than $100,000. If your estate qualifies as a “small estate,” the administration of the estate could be handled by a person using a Small Estate Affidavit without any oversight from the court.
Are all of my assets subject to probate?
Assets that are held in the name of the decedent are generally probate assets. “Probate” is the default category of assets. Assets that are held in more than just the decedent’s name may not be subject to the probate process. For instance, assets held in joint tenancy with a right of survivorship (or tenancy by the entireties) are not subject to probate because the surviving joint tenant will become the owner automatically by operation of law when the first joint tenant passes. Assets with beneficiary designations will pass automatically by operation of law to the designated beneficiaries, meaning that probate is not necessary or required. Other examples of assets not generally subject to probate include life insurance, IRAs, 401(k)s, payable on death accounts, and trusts (provided that the designated beneficiaries survive the decedent).
Who handles the probate process?
If there is a will, the person designated as the “executor” in the will handles the probate process, but the executor must be approved by the court before the executor has the authority to act. “Letters Testamentary” are issued by the court authorizing the executor after a petition is filed seeking the court’s approval. If there is no will, any qualified person may seek to be appointed as the administrator of the estate. An administrator also must be approved by the court (following the filing of a petition seeking an approval). People who have an interest in the estate have a lawful right to object to the appointment of an executor or administrator. A generic name for an executor or administrator is a personal representative of the estate.
What are the responsibilities of the person handling the estate?
The executor or administrator must retain an attorney to represent him or her and the estate. The attorney will assist in preparing the necessary documents to open the estate and guide the process according to the Probate Act. Among other things, the executor is obligated to give notice to all of the natural heirs and to any additional people that are named as beneficiaries in the will. Notice must also be sent to all known creditors, and notice must be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county in which the decedent died, once a week for three successive weeks. The executor is obligated to identify and locate all of the assets that were held by the decedent, and process them through the probate proceeding. The executor must identify and satisfy all of the debts and obligations of the estate, protect and preserve all of the estate assets, handle all claims and complaints, and issues that come up, maintain an inventory of the assets, generate an accounting of all of the income and expenses of the estate, provide a copy of the accounting to the heirs and legatees (other people named in the will) and follow all of the requirements of the Illinois Probate Act and all of the directions in the will, including distributing all of the net assets of the Estate before closing the probate estate. An executor or administrator is a fiduciary who is bound to the highest standard of duty in the law, including a duty to refrain from self-dealing, to handle everything according to the requirements of the law, and the intentions of the decedent, to treat all beneficiaries fairly, to provide an accounting, to preserve and protect the assets, and other things.
How long does the probate process take?
In Illinois, the probate process usually takes about nine months. After all of the notices go out to the required individuals, and notice is published in the newspaper, there is a six-month claims window that must pass before the Probate Estate can be closed. If the executor takes one month after the decedent passes to get the probate estate opened (which is moving very quickly) and takes one month to get all of the notices out and published in the paper, and takes one month to do the final inventory accounting and prepare the necessary documentation to close the probate estate, together with the six-month window, that makes a total of nine months. In reality, the probate process often takes longer because of delays in doing some of those things, or claims or issues that arise that must be handled.
How does the probate process get started?
Probate begins with the filing of a petition to open a Probate Estate in the local circuit court in the county in which the decedent was living when the decedent died. An attorney is required to represent the estate. The petition must be filed with the necessary additional documentation as required by the Probate Act and the specific requirements of the local circuit court. Local circuit courts often have their own forms that are required to be used, and certain minimum information must be provided in the petition and other documentation to open the Probate Estate.
What is the cost of probate?
The cost of probate consists of court costs, attorneys’ fees, publication and other administrative costs, and fees for the executor or administrator. Until the Illinois Supreme Court prohibited the practice, probate attorneys often charged a percentage of the estate. Since a Supreme Court case in the 1970s, attorneys’ fees must be substantiated based upon the complexity of the estate, the knowledge and experience of the attorney, and other things. In practice, that means that attorneys’ fees are usually calculated on the basis of time spent at the hourly rate of the attorney and/or legal assistant who handled the process. Executor/Administrator fees are handled in the same way. The same factors apply (ability, education, experience, complexity, etc.). Costs will include the filing fee, publication costs, mailing, and any other costs associated with the handling of assets. Even a small estate in Illinois will cost in the neighborhood of $4,000, which consists of attorneys’ fees, executor’s fees, and legal costs. For even the simplest of small estates, there are certain minimum things that must be done, no different than larger estates. For larger estates, and estates in which issues and complexities arise, that cost will also increase.
When does the reading of the will occur?
This is a common question that is often asked because of movies and television shows. In fact, there is no requirement that a will be “read” in person to anyone. People named in the will may get a copy of the will as part of the initial notice from the executor, but anyone can obtain a copy of the will if an estate is being “probated” because the will must be filed with the Probate Court. The court records are public and a copy of the will can be obtained from the local circuit court clerk. Some circuit courts have records online, and others do not.