Unless certain steps have been taken, executors will need to deal with probate. Here's how it works.

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Lots of us have heard the term "probate," but have a shaky understanding of just what it means. So here is the quick version: Probate is the court-supervised process of gathering a deceased person's assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing what's left to the people who inherit it. Literally, the word comes from the Latin for "to prove," because a central part of many probates is proving that the will is valid. But a probate proceeding can occur whether or not there's a will.

If you've been named the executor (also called personal representative) of someone's estate, then you're in charge of probate. It can be a long, tedious process, and expensive, too, when court costs and attorney's fees are added up. But it's mostly paperwork, and you'll be able to get through it just fine if you're organized, honest, and patient. You may also be able to take advantage of probate shortcuts--processes that let inheritors claim their property more quickly and easily than a regular probate proceeding does.

Serving as Executor? Nolo Can Help.

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The Executor's Guide

The Executor's Guide

Settle an estate or trust with this all-in-one guide for executors. The Executor's Guide will help you make progress one step at a time through the unfamiliar land of legal procedures and terminology.

The Trustee's Legal Companion

The Trustee's Legal Companion

Learn the ins and outs of being a trustee with this guide for every trust administrator. The Trustee’s Legal Companion shows you exactly how to proceed within the terms of the trust and your state's law.

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