When someone dies, their will has to be authenticated before any distributions to beneficiaries can be made. This probate process is presided over by a judge. He or she ensures that necessary steps are taken in settling an estate through probate and that, if no will exists, state intestate succession laws are upheld.

One of the first tasks that a probate judge must handle when a new case comes before him or her is authenticating the will. The judge must determine whether the will filed is indeed the last known one written by the decedent. The signature on it must be confirmed to be his or hers as well.

The next step in the probate process is for a judge to appoint a personal representative (PR) to settle the estate. In cases in which the decedent had a will, he or she likely already appointed one. If there is no will, then a decedent’s next of kin will be asked to handle this task.

After the PR is appointed, the judge will instruct that person regarding their responsibilities. One of the tasks he or she will ask the PR to complete is locating and protecting any assets the decedent may have left behind. The PR may have to commission appraisals of any assets with unknown values or review bank statements to gain a better perspective as to the value of the decedent’s estate.

The PR must next identify the decedent’s creditors and advise them of the situation. In some jurisdictions, a notice of death may even need to be published in the local paper in case there are unknown creditors. Creditors generally have a small window during which they can collect on past due debts. A PR must next pay any valid debts owed.

Preparing the decedent’s final income tax return is the penultimate responsibility assigned to the PR. It becomes their obligation to pay any inheritance taxes the estate owes within nine months of the decedent’s passing. It’s only after filing taxes that the PR can ask the judge for permission to distribute what’s left of the estate to the beneficiaries.

When there is no will or an invalid or contested one, judges follow state laws in making distributions from the decedent’s estate. If you’d like to gain a clearer picture of the responsibilities of a PR, then a Trenton estate planning and probate attorney can provide guidance in your legal matter.

Source: The Balance, “Learn What Happens During Probate,” Julie Garber, accessed March 23, 2018