Probate is Not a Dirty Word

The word “probate” is often tossed around as something to be avoided.  As if the failure to avoid it were a mark of stupidity, or symbolized a lack of care or planning.

On some level if a person does extensive planning, and has ALL their assets with named beneficiaries, or if a person creates a trust (AND takes the additional step of transferring ALL their assets to the trust), probate can be avoided.

But what is actually being avoided?  Is avoiding it worth the effort?

What is probate, really?

In New York, probate means that a Will has been recognized by the Surrogates Court as proper.  The end result is that somebody (usually the person named as Executor in the Will) receives a document from the Court called “Letters Testamentary”.  This is the Executor’s proof that he/she has authority to act on behalf of the Estate.

When there is a Will, in order to transfer any asset (bank and brokerage accounts, real estate, co-op apartments, etc) that was owned in the name of the deceased person, you need Letters Testamentary.

If you are named as an Executor in a Will, and you have the original Will and a death certificate, can you go into a bank and close out a deceased persons account? Nope.  The bank will tell you to come back with Letters Testamentary. What they are really saying is “get the will probated”.  This requirement is essentially a safety measure that protects all the interested parties.

Probating a Will is a Surrogate’s Court proceeding.  The specific facts and circumstances will determine whether it’s simple (and many times it is) or complicated.

I’ve heard people say that many procedures were “invented by lawyers to make things complicated so lawyers can make money”.  I see it quite differently, and I would summarize the need for these proceedings as follows:

“There is no end to the creativity and deviousness of SOME people when it comes to doing what is NOT proper, ethical, moral and legal.  The court proceedings are designed to protect the wishes of the person who made the Will, as well as to protect those who the decedent intended to inherit.  Related to that is sometimes it’s just not clear that the “Will” in question is actually what the person wanted. The procedures are designed to make sure the people affected by the Will are notified and that they have an opportunity to be heard (if there is some issue worth hearing)”

Since there is no way for the Court to know in advance whether a particular Will has “issues”, or whether the people involved are honest and nice, to probate a Will and get Letters Testamentary requires following the procedures.  That being said, VERY often you can identify the interested parties, they can all sign a “Waiver and Consent”, and the Will can be admitted to probate (and Letters Testamentary issued) pretty quickly.

Does it take some legal knowledge and time and experience to probate a Will? Sure, but in friendly situations (which is often the case) the fees should not be onerous. If they are, call a different lawyer. Can the fees become substantial if there are issues with a Will?  Certainly, but we lawyers didn’t create a system to encourage that. The procedures are in place to be sure that interested parties are heard and can have the issues resolved by a Court if necessary.  Personally, I’d rather earn modest fees in friendly situations, as opposed to bigger fees from dysfunctional family feud cases.  But hey, we can only play the hands we are dealt.

Probate is not a dirty word.  It’s a necessary proceeding so that a person’s Will can be carried out.