What you should know about the probate process. “Probate” is the process under which the assets of a deceased person are distributed. Maine has a streamlined probate system. In most cases, no judge is involved, unless there is disagreement between heirs, a disagreement involving creditors, or if there are irregularities in the execution of the Will. This process is called “informal probate.” Simple paperwork is submitted to the Probate Court, which is then processed by the court staff.
Appointment of Personal Representative (formerly known as "Executor"). The first step in the probate process is the appointment of a Personal Representative (sometimes still called “Executor”):
- A family member or other interested person will submit a simple probate application to the Probate Court for the county in which the deceased lived or the county in which the deceased owned property. The application asks for information concerning the deceased person, the money and property in the estate, the deceased person's family and the people named in the Will.
- The applicant files a copy of the Death Certificate with the court.
- If the deceased person left a Will, then the original Will is also filed with the Court.
- The applicant pays a filing fee, which is based on the value of the estate. (If the applicant has to pay from his or her own pocket, this fee will eventually be reimbursed from the deceased person's funds.)
- A Court employee reviews the information in the application, and if there is a Will reviews it to determine whether it was properly witnessed and executed.
- If everything is in order, the Register of Probate (a court official) issues “Letters of Authority” appointing the Personal Representative, who will be in charge of administering the estate. If the deceased person left a Will, then the Personal Representative named in the Will is appointed. If there is no Will, then the next of kin has "priority of appointment."
- This step usually takes a few weeks to a month, depending on the Maine county in which the application is filed.
The Personal Representative's job, step-by-step. The Personal Representative is the “boss” of the estate. Once appointed, the Personal Representative will have complete control of the deceased's accounts and property and can get to work:
- While the Personal Representative is in complete control of the estate, he or she has a duty to do so in the interest of the beneficiaries and to keep them informed of what is going on.
- The Personal Representative first prepares an “Inventory” (list) of the assets belonging to the deceased, with their values as of the date of death, and distributes the Inventory to the heirs and the people named in the Will.
- The Personal Representative pays the most important bills (e.g., mortgage) as they come in. The Personal Representative should wait four to five months for other creditors to submit their bills and should usually not distribute assets to beneficiaries until that period is over. (Creditors have a period of four months after the Probate Court publishes a legal notice in the local newspaper concerning the opening of the estate.)
- The Personal Representative gathers and distributes tangible personal property (such as furniture, dishes, jewelry, and tools) to the beneficiaries and will sell or dispose of items not wanted by the beneficiaries.
- If there are investments such as stocks and bonds, the Personal Representative may sell these investments.
- If there is real estate to be sold, the Personal Representative gets the property ready to sell and then lists it for sale. If the real estate is to be distributed to beneficiaries, the Personal Representative will deed the property to the beneficiaries.
- The Personal Representative files the deceased 's final income tax return and may also, depending on the income to the estate, file a separate tax return for the estate.
- An estate tax return may also be filed, depending on the size of the estate and whether there is real estate. (Only estates of over $5.6 million are subject to estate tax in Maine; the federal threshold is currently $11 million.)
- After all bills have been paid, the Personal Representative may begin to make distributions to the beneficiaries. The Personal Representative may distribute the estate all at once or may make distributions in installments.
- Once the assets have been distributed, the Personal Representative prepares a final account of all income, expenses, and distributions, and distributes the account to the beneficiaries.
- Finally, the Personal Representative closes the estate by filing a "Sworn Statement" with the Probate Court.
- The Personal Representative is entitled to “reasonable compensation” for his or her services. The amount of pay the Personal Representative gets depends on the amount of time spent, the degree of skill required by the particular activity, and any special expertise the Personal Representative has.
Is the Judge ever involved in Probate? If the Will was not properly executed; if there is a dispute among beneficiaries; or a dispute involving creditors, the probate process may become more complicated. In such cases, before the Personal Representative is appointed and the Will declared valid, there will have to be a hearing in front of a probate judge. In rare instances, the Personal Representative may be supervised by the Court and may not be permitted to make distributions without Court approval. In most instances, however, beneficiaries will find a way to agree without involving the Court.
Can you probate a Will without an attorney? Some people choose to handle the probate of an estate without an attorney. However, others find that getting the help of an attorney gives them peace of mind, knowing that the job has been done correctly, and minimizing stress after the death of a family member.
If you have had a loved one die and have questions about the probate process, we would be happy to guide you. Give us a call at (207) 377-6966 or send a message through our Contact page.