Step-By-Step Guide to Estate Probates

Most people have little experience dealing with what happens after their loved one dies and they get appointed as a personal representative or executor to settle the estate. The purpose of this guide is to provide a general overview of the six steps required to probate an estate.


Executors need to inventory documents and assets.
Ciaran Griffin / Getty Images

Before being appointed to serve as a personal representative or executor, the first step in probating an estate is to locate all of the decedent's estate planning documents and other important papers.

The decedent's estate planning documents may include a Last Will and Testament, funeral, cremation, burial or memorial instructions, and/or a Revocable Living Trust. The original documents should be stored in a safe place until they can be given to the estate attorney.

The decedent's important papers will include information about the decedent's assets, including

  • Bank and brokerage statements
  • Stock and bond certificates
  • Life insurance policies
  • Corporate records
  • Car and boat titles
  • Deeds to real estate

This inventory will also include information about the decedent's debts, such as utility bills, credit card bills, mortgages, personal loans, medical bills, and the funeral bill.

It is important to note what documents are needed after someone dies. That way you have a detailed list of the specific documents that will need to be located.

From these documents, a list should be made of what the decedent owned and owed. Also list how each asset is titled—in the decedent's individual name, as a tenant in common, in joint names, or in trust.

For assets and debts that have a statement, note the value of the asset or debt as listed on the statement and the date of the statement. In addition, the decedent's prior three years of income tax returns should be set aside.

Once the decedent's important documents have been sorted through, the next is to meet with an estate lawyer to open the estate with the probate court.

Open the Probate Estate

Estate executor opening the probate estate paperwork
Eric Audras / Getty Images

Once the decedent's legal documents and other important papers have been sorted through, the next step in probating the estate is to meet with an estate attorney to officially open the probate estate with the probate court.

Once the estate lawyer has received enough information to draft the court documents required to open the probate estate, they will notify the person named to serve as the personal representative or executor in the decedent's Last Will and the beneficiaries named in the Will.

If there isn't a Last Will, then the decedent's heirs at law will be required to review and sign the documents required to open the probate estate.

While these documents will vary from state to state, or even from county to county within the same state, they will generally include the following:

  • Petition for Probate Administration
  • Oath and Acceptance of Personal Representative/Executor
  • Appointment of Resident Agent
  • Joinders, Waivers, and Consents
  • Petition to Waive Bond
  • Order Admitting Will to Probate
  • Order Appointing Personal Representative/Executor
  • Order Waiving Bond
  • Letters of Administration/Letters Testamentary

Value the Decedent's Assets

Decedent home is included in an estate executor spreadsheet
Ed Freeman / Getty Images

Once the probate estate has been opened with the probate court, the next step in probating the estate is to establish the date of death values for all of the decedent's assets.

This step is important because most states require that an inventory of the decedent's probate assets along with their date of death values be filed with the probate court within 30-90 days of the date when the probate estate was opened with the court.

All financial institutions where the decedent's assets are located must be contacted to obtain the date of death values. For assets including real estate, personal effects including jewelry, artwork, and collectibles, and closely-held businesses, they'll need to be appraised by a professional appraiser.

The probate court will only require a date of death value for the decedent's probate assets to be listed on the estate inventory. If the decedent's estate is taxable—on the federal or state level—then the date of death values will also need to be established for the decedent's non-probate assets. These assets will include those owned as

  • Tenants by the entirety
  • Joint tenants with right of survivorship
  • Payable on death accounts
  • Transfer on death accounts
  • Life insurance
  • Retirement accounts including IRAs and 401(k)s
  • Annuities

Pay the Decedent's Final Bills and Estate Expenses

Paying the Decedent's Final Bills to the executor of the estate
 Jamie Gill / Getty Images

Once the date of death values have been determined for the decedent's assets, the next step in probating the estate is to pay the decedent's final bills and ongoing expenses of administering the estate.

This is also the time when the executor will need to evaluate whether any of the decedent's assets, such as real estate or a business, should be sold in order to raise cash to pay expenses, debts, and taxes.

It is the executor's job to figure out what bills the decedent owed at the time of death. They are responsible to determine if the bills are legitimate, and then pay the bills.

The executor will also be responsible for paying the ongoing expenses of administering the estate, including legal fees, accounting fees, utilities, insurance premiums, and mortgage payments.

Pay Taxes

Tax forms that an estate executor will need
Jeffrey Hamilton / Getty Images

Once the personal representative or executor has paid the final bills and has the estate expenses under control, the next step in probating the estate is to pay any income taxes and death taxes that may be due.

The executor will need to prepare and file the decedent's final federal and state income tax returns and pay any taxes that may be due in a timely manner. The final federal income tax return—IRS Form 1040—will be due on April 15 of the year after the decedent's year of death.

In 2021, individuals and businesses affected by winter storms in Texas may delay filing tax returns until June 15.

Aside from filing the decedent's final income tax return, if the estate earns income during the course of administration, then the executor will need to prepare and file all required federal estate income tax returns—IRS Form 1041—as well as any required state estate income tax returns.

If the decedent's estate is taxable for federal or state estate tax purposes, then the executor will be responsible for preparing and filing the federal estate tax return—IRS Form 706—or a state estate tax or inheritance return, and paying the tax bills.

Note that some estates may be required to file a federal estate tax return even though no estate tax will be due. Also, the value of the estate that requires these filing will vary by state. Some states do not tax the estate but may tax beneficiaries.

Once all of the income tax and estate tax issues have been resolved, the final step to settling the estate is to make distributions of what's left to the estate beneficiaries.

Distribute and Terminate

Estate executor distributing money during a decedent procedure
Caroline Purser / Getty Images

Usually, the first question that the estate beneficiaries will ask the executor is "When will I get my inheritance check?" But unfortunately for the beneficiaries, making distributions of the estate assets to the estate beneficiaries is the very last step in settling the estate.

Before making any distributions to the estate beneficiaries, the personal representative or executor must be certain that every single expense of administering the estate and all taxes have been paid, or that enough assets have been set aside to pay the final bills and taxes.

Otherwise, if the executor chooses to make distributions to the estate beneficiaries but expenses come up later, then the executor will have to pay these expenses out of their own pocket.

If the administration of the estate is expected to take more than a year, then the executor should work closely with the estate lawyer and accountant to plan for setting aside enough assets to pay the ongoing estate expenses and making distributions to the estate beneficiaries in multiple stages.