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What is probate?

Estate planning is a critical part of ensuring not only one's own financial well-being, but also those of his or her beneficiaries. Often associated with estate planning, the term "probate" often carries negative connotations. This may be caused by its portrayal in television and movies, but Floridians need to fully understand the probate process, as it may give them a clearer sense of which estate planning tools are best suited to their needs.

Generally speaking, probate is nothing more than the process through which a deceased individual's property is transferred to other parties. The process is supervised by the court, and consists of a number of steps. First, the deceased individual's property is collected. Then, all of the decedent's debts are paid, including any taxes that may be due. After that, all income is collected from, say, dividends, and any outstanding disputes, such as lawsuits, are settled. At that point, any remaining assets can be transferred to the deceased's heirs. This process is typically carried out by an executor, who may be named in a will.

In most instances, an estate will pass to heirs in an uncontested fashion. Sometimes, though, disputes arise. For example, a disgruntled relative may challenge the validity of a will if he or she believes that he or she was wrongly left out of the estate distribution. When this happens, the probate process can slow, and the dispute will be heard before a judge. In these instances, evidence will need to be presented to support one's position.

Of course, there may be ways for an estate to avoid probate, which can diminish the estate's costs, thereby maximizing the assets that can be transferred to one's heirs. However, doing so and having property transferred according to one's wishing requires careful planning. Therefore, those who want to learn more about wills, trusts, and other estate planning techniques may want to discuss the matter with a qualified legal professional.

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