The death of a loved one, aside from inspiring grief, typically requires opening probate. Probate, whether there is a will or not, is the legal process by which you account for the decedent's assets, pay all claims or debts against him, and make any required distributions to his heirs. Probate laws vary by state, and within each state, may vary by county. In general, closing probate typically requires completing accounting and/or distribution paperwork, having the heirs sign off on the accounting, and filing that paperwork with the county or state.
Get the advice of an attorney. Probate laws can be serpentine. The process of ending probate is riddled with deadlines in some states. Even if you have managed to open probate without benefit of legal advice, you definitely want to speak with an attorney before you end the process. A probate or estate specialist will be intimately familiar with the laws of your state and county and will be able to ensure you complete all necessary steps in a timely manner. He can also make sure you complete required paperwork properly. Even if the estate is small, consulting with a lawyer is a good idea.
Get the required paperwork. Some states allow you to download probate closing forms from the Web. Others require that you obtain them from the court or county. If you are not in the habit of filling out legal forms, make a couple of copies of the blank forms as spares in case you make a mistake. Among the most critical forms is the final account, which details the contents of the estate and the distributions from the estate. You may also need to file documents, such as a letter of administration and/or proof of creditor notification.
Fill out the forms according to the directions. Be sure to include every asset collected and every debt paid and to spell all names correctly. Double- and triple-check your math to be sure you have not made errors.
Distribute the final estate accounting to the heirs, if any. In most states, the heirs need to sign off on or agree to the content of the accounting before it is filed with the court. In general, a dissenting heir can file an exception or opposition with the probate court, detailing any perceived errors or misstatements. Objections must be addressed before probate is ended.
Make distributions to the heirs and file the final accounting with the court. These steps appear as one because in some states they are practically concurrent. In any case, you cannot make final distributions until the heirs have agreed to the final accounting. And you cannot file the final account with the court until any and all distributions are paid.
States such as Washington and Ohio have deadlines for close of probate. Though extensions may be granted, find out about any and all probate-related deadlines in your state and county.
Check with an attorney about when and where to sign the forms. In some states, closing document signatures need to be witnessed by a court representative.