Probate and Estate Administration
There is a great deal of unnecessary fear and mistrust of this process. For the vast majority of clients, “Probate” requires submitting standardized forms, paying filing fees, (usually $200-300), and obtaining the official letters from the clerk of the probate court which enable them to handle the financial affairs of the deceased person. These letters permit a named personal representative to administer an estate within a relatively short period of time, usually within three to six months. Many people misunderstand the purpose of probate. The Probate Court serves to ensure that the property of the deceased person is safeguarded—and that it is distributed only to those who have a right to it; either because they are named in a Will, or because they are an heir under law and are entitled to it.
Why Families Get Anxious
During law school I had the very helpful experience of working in a Probate Court over the course of a year. I was able to observe the process every day, and listen in as family members, some grieving (and some not!), came in to handle their deceased loved one’s affairs. This interaction has been useful when I speak to groups, and when I counsel with clients. I can assure people that, based on my personal observation, many of their beliefs and fears about the probate process are simply groundless.
Unfortunately, some of this misinformation can be attributed to colleagues in the legal profession, who feel that the “fear factor” motivates individuals to take the responsible path and put an estate plan in place. And, the probate process can vary greatly from state to state, and in some cases, from municipality to municipality. In some places, probate costs are very high, and waits are long. In addition, some popular how-to manuals promote the notion that probate judges personally plunder property, or that state treasuries are lined with the assets of people who failed to make a Will.
And why they should not be…
However, here in Georgia, our probate process is standardized. Each county uses the same set of forms, and each county generally charges the same set fees for the process. Those fees are set for the state. Ironically, the costs of probate can be driven by attorney’s fees. Although the court costs of filing usually only run several hundred dollars, it may cost $1,000 to $1,500 for a lawyer to guide a family through the process. Having a knowledgeable attorney involved is highly recommended in cases where there are a variety of assets, family conflicts, or an “untidy” estate plan. And of course, if family members are feuding, the legal fees can escalate accordingly! The best remedy to this is a well-considered estate plan, and a valid Will.
Sometimes handling the process of settling an estate is not a pleasant undertaking, especially if you have lost someone you care about deeply. The rules can be unsettling—notices must be placed in the newspaper so that heirs and creditors know that a person they are expecting money from has died. Paperwork has to be filled out. Family friction may be exposed when bequests do not meet expectations. But these difficulties should be expected. A person’s property must be protected when they pass away, and it is the court’s job to ensure that occurs.
You can find self-help guides and copies of the standardized forms on a state-wide website maintained by the Georgia Council on Probate Judges, along with a glossary of terms, by clicking here: http://www.gaprobate.org/proceedings.php
"Recently retired Probate Judge William Self, widely considered the "Dean" of Georgia's probate courts, kindly lends his robe for a 'try on for size' to an admiring young student who is interested in the judicial system."