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A lot of people have heard of probate, but what exactly happens during the process may still be somewhat of a mystery to many.

Probate is the basic process that the courts use to authenticate someone’s will after their death and oversee the disposition of their worldly assets. While each state has a slightly different probate process, you can generally expect the following things to happen:

  1. The decedent’s will has to be declared authentic and valid.
  2. The estate’s executor is appointed (usually as directed in the will).
  3. The executor is tasked with securing the decedent’s property and other valuables.
  4. A final accounting is done of the assets in the decedent’s estate.
  5. The decedent’s creditors are notified and given time to make a claim against the estate for any unpaid debts.
  6. Any valid claims against the estate are paid and tax returns are filed.
  7. The remaining assets and personal effects of the decedent’s are distributed according to his or her will.

If the deceased didn’t leave a will, the process is still similar. The chief difference is that any remaining assets left in the estate after the creditors are paid will end up being distributed according to state law — not the decedent’s express wishes.

Many people find probate to be a difficult and time-consuming process, simply because it has so many steps. It helps if the decedent’s was organized and had all of his or her financial affairs in order at the time of death — but that’s seldom the case. When an estate is complicated, with a lot of assets like stocks, bonds, retirement plans and other investments, it can take quite a bit of paperwork and time to do the final accounting and notify all known creditors.

The time factor alone is what causes many executors to seek out experienced probate assistance. Having guidance through each step of the process often makes it easier to manage.