01#1 - Locate and Read the Decedent's Last Will and Testament.
If you believe the decedent has drafted a last will and testament, locate and thoroughly study this document, as it will reveal whether or not the decedent has named a personal representative (aka executor) to handle his estate. If an executor is named, turn the will over to that individual. You legally have no further responsibilities, in managing the probate estate.
Move on to Step 3 if the decedent did not leave a will.
02#2 - Make a Complete List of the Will's Beneficiaries
The decedent's will should identify his beneficiaries, which are the individuals to whom he or she wishes to leave his property. Compile a list of their names and contact information, including addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and email addresses. If a beneficiary is deceased, obtain his or her original death certificate.
03#3 - Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Assets
This list should include every asset the decedent owned, including cash left in his wallet, bank accounts, investments, jewelry, personal effects, furniture, collectibles, cars, boats, real estate, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and business interests.
04#4 - Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Liabilities.
This list should include all the decedent's creditors and debts, including mortgages, personal loans, utilities, credit cards and medical bills.
05#5 - Meet With an Estate Lawyer
The executor of the will and its beneficiaries should plan to attend the first meeting with an estate lawyer--either in person or by phone. If the decedent didn't have a will, his heirs-at-law should attend as well, as these individuals may be entitled to collect some of the inheritance, even without a will, purely due to a degree of kinship.
06#6 - Review and Sign the Documents Required to Open the Probate Estate
Different states and counties can have different requirements regarding the legal documents required to officially open estates with probate courts. Estate lawyers and probate court clerk can furnish you with a list of necessary items. Just be sure to hire local attorneys who are familiar with your particular county's local probate rules.
07#7 - Wait to Hear From the Court
After all the appropriate legal paperwork is filed with the probate court, you must wait until the probate judge reviews the file. He'll then either admit the will or estate for probate, or request additional information. Finally, he will authorize a personal representative to act on behalf of the estate and its beneficiaries, by granting him or her "letters testamentary" or "letters of administration."
08#8 - Provide Certified Copies of Probate Orders to All Financial Institutions.
The personal representative of the estate should handle everything else from this point forward. He or she should provide copies of all orders signed by the judge and should provide letters testamentary to the financial institutions where the decedent's assets are located, letting them know that he or she is authorized to take control of them.
Probate Checklist - How to Open a Probate Estate
8 Steps to Opening a Probate Estate
Those responsible for opening a decedent's estate and submitting his will for probate should take the following eight steps to heart: