At some point in our lives, we all must consider where our precious valuables go once we leave this earth. A rather grim statement to think about, I know, but deciding what to do with the assets you accrue throughout your life is critical.
But, how would you even begin with such a task? Whether you have a lot or a little, there is much to be divided, and it is equally as important to follow with state laws as it is to follow directions outlined in a person’s will.
Lo and behold, this is where probate lawyers come in. When we ask ourselves, “what do probate lawyers do?” there are quite a few ways to unpack that question.
Probate lawyers, also known as estate or trust attorneys, guides and executes the process of distributing assets within a will’s directions. Through the probate process, what probate lawyers do is identify estate assets and beneficiaries. Then, the probate lawyer sees that the assets and inheritances are distributed according to a person’s will.
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- What do Probate Lawyers do? Definitions and Background
- What do Probate Lawyers do with Wills and Testaments?
- When Might you Need a Probate Lawyer?
- What do Probate Lawyers do to Settle Disputes?
- What do Probate Lawyers do when there is Debt?
- Related Articles
What do Probate Lawyers do? Definitions and Background
I know what you’re thinking, “Whoa, that was a lot of information to start off with.” The truth is, probate lawyers have complicated tasks ahead of them. Many of those tasks are loaded with legal processes and jargon that can be tricky to unpack. So, let’s discuss a bit more about what we mean by terms like “asset management” and “beneficiaries.”
Estate and Asset Management
Like we mentioned in the introduction, part of what probate lawyers do is handle a person’s “estate” or “assets.” Let’s give some meaning to those words. In common law, an estate is defined as the net worth of a person at any time, dead or alive. An estate is the summation of all the person’s assets such as property, cash, or even a vehicle.
If you are like me, you might imagine an estate as some big, fancy home in a beautiful, remote location along the countryside. You’re not wrong, but the important distinction here is an estate buy that definition is an asset.
Assets are defined as anything containing some economic value or future benefit. Property, businesses, investments, and vehicles are all examples of assets. The list of what counts as an asset is quite extensive. Add all these assets up and you arrive at the individual’s estate.
Now, what do probate lawyers do with estates and assets? Quite a bit, actually. Probate lawyers find and secure all of a dead person’s, or decedent’s, assets. Upon death, they also see that the decedent’s assets are appraised for an accurate valuation of the person’s estate.
Decedents and Beneficiaries
Now that you have a solid foundation on what estates and assets are, we will discuss who exactly hands down those assets and who receives them. In probate law, there are two parties involved in the process.
A “decedent” is quite simply a dead person. In this case, the decedent is the person whose estate and assets are being divided. The probate lawyer works for the decedent, as the probate lawyer carries out the disbursement process and manages the decedent’s estate upon death.
The flip side of this coin are the “beneficiaries.” Simply put, a beneficiary is a person or entity that is named in a life insurance policy to receive the death benefit. If a beneficiary is listed in a will, then that person or entity receives whatever asset the decedent decides to bestow upon them.
We’ve talked at length about what probate lawyers do in cut-and-dry cases, but we should discuss the different processes that may occur after a person has died.
What do Probate Lawyers do with Wills and Testaments?
A will and testament, in legal terms, is a legal document that expresses a person’s wishes as to how their estate is to be distributed after their death. In this document, the decedent already defined who receives assets and what assets those are.
What do probate lawyers do when there is a will? Well, they handle the disbursement of assets, advise legal matters, and settle any disputes that may arise between beneficiaries.
Probate lawyers act as a safeguard for a decedent’s assets, and may review the will and testament to ensure the will was not signed or written against the best interests of the individual.
Second, if a person has a serious medical condition, such as dementia, probate lawyers can protect the individual from outside influence. Family members or colleagues may seek a slice of the pie, and probate lawyers can shield this individual from disbursing their assets to people who may take advantage of that said individual.
What do Probate Lawyers do when there is not a Will?
For potential beneficiaries, the process can get a little challenging if there is not a will. If an individual dies without having written a will, then that individual died “intestate.” This means there is no binding declaration of what assets are dispersed amongst potential beneficiaries.
Regardless of the decedent’s wishes before death, the estate must be distributed according to state laws. In some states, the decedent’s spouse may receive most, if not all of the assets in the state. However, estate laws may vary greatly from state to state.
But, such a process may be avoided if a family member seeks out “renunciations” from the decedent’s relatives. A renunciation is the act of rejecting or giving up a right to an inheritance. This document gives the family member the power to administer the estate. With the help of a probate lawyer, one can secure said renunciations and then assist in the administration process.
When Might you Need a Probate Lawyer?
Whether you may be the decedent, or a beneficiary, what probate lawyers do can improve the process. For anyone involved, managing a decedent’s assets can be burdensome and volatile. Depending on the value of the estate, family and friends may look for some way to benefit from it.
What do Probate Lawyers do to Settle Disputes?
Probate lawyers deal with asset management, but they assist in a number of other areas as well. As mentioned before, family members may not always get along during such a turbulent process. In this case, what probate lawyers do is settle disputes and protect the estate from a will contest.
Although rare, some unruly family members may contest the will to receive a larger slice of the estate. In such a case, hiring a probate lawyer is crucial. A lawyer can help your family avoid a costly court battle, and can mediate a discussion about the family member’s will contest.
What do Probate Lawyers do when there is Debt?
It would be wonderful if a decedent’s debt magically disappeared upon death. But, such an outcome in this world is impossible. If the deceased person has outstanding debt, a probate lawyer steps in to see their debt is paid off.
After appraising the estate, the probate lawyer then decides what assets may be used to pay off the decedent’s debts. Hopefully, there is enough within the estate to pay off any final income taxes and expenses while having some left for the beneficiaries. Yet, in the case there is not enough, a probate lawyer can help guide beneficiaries through the process.
What do Probate Lawyers do Continued:
We covered a lot of information about what probate lawyers do, here are some other roles they may play as well:
- Managing and collecting life insurance proceeds
- Preparing and filing documents as required by the probate court
- Managing the estate’s checkbook
- Determining whether estate taxes are owed
So, what do probate lawyers do? Quite a bit. If a family member of yours has passed on a probate lawyer helps manage the estate, distribute assets to beneficiaries, settle disputes, and so much more.
While they are also called estate lawyers, probate lawyers typically manage a decedent’s estate and assets. Estate lawyers, on the other hand, usually assist those that are still living. However, they both carry out similar tasks for their clients.
If you are ever in need of a probate lawyer, there is a wealth of online resources at your disposal to get the legal assistance you need. Websites like lawyer.com are great places to start. Consultation is typically free, but be sure to check the fine print before you get in contact.
Of course, these websites offer plenty of information on complex legal terms and processes to take the headache out of understanding the law.