Step-by-Step Guide to Opening a Probate Estate

Locate and Read the Decedent's Last Will and Testament

Senior woman getting advice
Kali Nine LLC / Getty Images

In general, there are eight steps to opening a probate estate with the appropriate state court, but some of the steps can be skipped if the decedent did not leave a Last Will and Testament or they left a pile of papers to be sorted and organized.

After someone dies, if the family knows that the decedent made a Last Will and Testament, the first thing to do is to locate and read the original will.

When reading the will, note the following: special instructions regarding the decedent's funeral, cremation, or burial; the beneficiary of the decedent's personal effects; who receives any specific bequests; the beneficiary of the decedent's residuary estate; who is named as the Personal Representative/Executor, Trustee of any trusts created under the will; who is to be the Guardian/Conservator for any minors of the decedent; the date and location where the will was signed, and who signed the will as witnesses and Notary Public.

The original will should then be stored in a safe location until it can be given to the estate settlement lawyer. Steps 2, 3, and 4 should then be completed, and an appointment should be made with an estate lawyer for Step 5. Hopefully, someone in the family knows where the original Last Will and Testament is being stored. It is assumed that if an original will cannot be found, the Testator decided to revoke it prior to death.

For further reading on Your Last Will and Testament see, Is Your Last Will and Testament Valid? and How Do You Make Changes to Your Last Will and Testament?

If the original will cannot be found and the decedent may have stored it in a safe deposit box, then skip Step 2, complete Steps 3 and 4, and make an appointment for Step 5.

What To Do If the Decedent Did Not Make a Will

If the decedent did not make a Last Will and Testament, then skip to Steps 3 and 4 and make an appointment for Step 5.

Make a Complete List of the Benficiaries and Fiduciaries Named in the Will

If the decedent had a Last Will and Testament, make a complete list of the beneficiaries and fiduciaries named in the will (including the Personal Representative and, if applicable, the Trustee of any trusts created under the will, and the Guardian/Conservator for any minors). Include as much of the following information as possible:

  • Name - as listed in the Last Will and Testament and any other names by which the person is known​
  • Mailing address​
  • Phone numbers - home, work, cell​
  • Date of birth​
  • Social Security Number​
  • Email address

Additionally, if you know that an initial beneficiary or fiduciary is deceased, then you will need to obtain an original death certificate so that it can be filed with the probate court. 

Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Assets

Locate the decedent's important papers including bank and brokerage statements, stock and bond certificates, life insurance policies, corporate records, car and boat titles, and deeds. Refer to What Documents Are Needed After Someone Dies? for a detailed list of the specific documents that you'll need to locate.

From these documents, make a complete list of what the decedent owned, how each asset is titled and, for assets that have a statement, the value of the asset as listed on the statement and the date of the statement. In addition, set aside the decedent's prior three years of income tax returns.

If the decedent's important papers are disorganized, skip Step 4 and make an appointment for Step 5.

Make a Complete List of the Decedent's Liabilities

Using the decedent's important papers, make a complete list of all of the decedent's liabilities, which may include:

  • Mortgages
  • Lines of credit
  • Condominium fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans, including student loans
  • Storage fees
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Once you have compiled the list of liabilities, you will need to divide them into two categories:

  1. Liabilities that will be ongoing during probate.
  2. Liabilities that can be paid in full once the probate estate is opened.

Once you have divided the bills into the two categories, refer to How a Deceased Person's Debts Are Handled Before and During Probate to determine which bills should be paid immediately and which ones can wait until the probate estate has been opened with the probate court.

Meet With an Estate Lawyer

Prior to meeting with the estate settlement lawyer, also called a probate attorney, hopefully, the family will have been able to complete, or at least have a good faith effort to complete, Steps 1 to 4. Doing so will make the first meeting with the estate lawyer much smoother.

Who should attend the first meeting with the estate lawyer? If the decedent had a Last Will and Testament, the beneficiaries and Personal Representative named in the will should plan to attend in person or at least by telephone.

If the decedent did not have a Last Will and Testament, then the heirs at law should plan to attend. If you are not sure who the heirs at law are, the estate lawyer will be able to tell you once the lawyer understands the decedent's family tree, so the presumed heirs at law should plan to attend.

Of course, not everyone is open about their estate plan, and many people are left with piles of documents that need to be sorted. If this is the case, the family will need to work closely with the estate lawyer to determine what the decedent owned and owed.

If the decedent did not leave a Last Will and Testament, the estate lawyer will determine who is entitled to receive the decedent's property after understanding the decedent's family tree.

Review and Sign the Documents Required to Open the Probate Estate

Once the estate lawyer has enough information to draft the court documents required to open the probate estate, the Personal Representative/Executor and, if applicable, the beneficiaries named in the decedent's Last Will and Testament or heirs at law will be required to review and sign the appropriate documents. While these legal 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

Wait to Hear From the Estate Lawyer

Assuming that all of the required court documents are in order, it should only take a few days or weeks for the probate judge to sign the orders necessary to admit the decedent's Last Will and Testament (if any) to probate, appoint the Personal Representative/Executor, and issue Letters of Administration/Letters Testamentary.

Once the estate lawyer receives the signed orders from the court, the lawyer will need to obtain a taxpayer identification number for the estate. This can be done online at the IRS website through the EIN Assistant.

Note that if the probate judge requires that the Personal Representative/Executor post a bond, the estate lawyer will need to work with the Personal Representative/Executor to secure the bond before the probate estate can be opened.

Provide Certified Copies of Probate Orders to All Financial Institutions

Once the Letters of Administration/Letters Testamentary have been signed by the probate judge, the Personal Representative/Executor will need to provide a certified copy of these Letters and, in some cases, an original death certificate, to the decedent's financial institutions along with the taxpayer identification number for the estate.

This is what will allow the Personal Representative/Executor to gain access to all of the decedent's financial accounts. If the decedent owned real estate, the Personal Representative/Executor will need to provide certified copies of the Letters to the utility companies to get the utility accounts transferred to the name of the estate.

While these eight steps may seem overwhelming, this is only the precursor to the probate process. The real work begins after the Personal Representative/Executor has been appointed.