7 Steps to Navigating Probate

Have you ever been asked to be the Personal Representative (commonly known as an Executor) of someone’s estate after death? It’s not an easy role and often brings complicated feelings. Many people view it as an honor. It can be comforting to know that you were respected and trusted by the deceased. However, it can also stir up feelings of sadness and grief.

While it may be difficult, it’s important to focus on the job duties and try not to let strong emotions distract you from the work that needs to be done. Probate is a complex, legal process. Many Personal Representatives are surprised by the amount of time it takes and all the different responsibilities involved. Many Personal Representatives report feeling overwhelmed. The seven steps below will help provide some background on what you can expect during the probate process.

Step 1 – Before accepting the role of Personal Representative, you need to ask yourself the following:
  • Am I comfortable being the person responsible for financial record-keeping?

The Personal Representative is responsible for managing the finances of the estate. Personal Representatives are held responsible for any misconduct.

  • Am I willing to manage and deal with the reactions of family and loved ones?

A Personal Representative’s Family relationships often take a hit and because of all the work involved, Personal Representatives are often the last to grieve.

  • Am I willing to put in the time necessary?

In Wisconsin, the probate process can last as long as 6- 18 months so it can be a huge time commitment.

If you can answer yes to the above questions, proceed to Step 2. If not, then you can (and probably should) decline the role.

Step 2 – File a request to begin probate.

Once you decide you will accept the role, if you haven’t already, you’ll want to contact an attorney with extensive probate experience to help guide you through the process. First you will have to file the necessary paperwork with the probate court in the county where the deceased was living at the time of death. You will have to file the original will (if there is one). The Court will determine whether you are  approved as Personal Representative of the estate and the probate case is officially opened.

Step 3 – Notify all creditors, beneficiaries and heirs that the estate is in probate.

The probate process must allow time for creditors to be notified, The Personal Representative is required to post a notice in the newspaper alerting any creditors of the deceased and setting a date for claims to be filed with the court.  In Wisconsin, creditors are prohibited from filing a claim against the estate after the claim period has ended.

Step 4 – Freeze and calculate the assets.

As the Personal Representative, you’ll want to make sure that personal tangible items stay on the property. It is probably also a good idea to change the locks once you are appointed by the court.  In addition, you will need to account for all of the assets of the estate such as:

  • Bank and retirement accounts
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Real estate
  • Life insurance
  • Titles to cars, boats, RVs and other vehicles
  • Personal effects such as jewelry, art and coin collections.
Step 5 –Determine liabilities and settle the debts of the estate.

Personal Representatives are responsible for making sure all required taxes are paid. A final income tax return will need to be filed with both state and federal. Also, the estate may have to file its own tax returns if the assets of the estate or income in the estate are over certain limits.  You also might have to do a little investigating to determine what bills and debts exist. In addition to taxes, common final debts include:

  • Hospital and doctor bills
  • Insurance premiums
  • Credit card statements
  • Mortgages
  • Property taxes
  • Funeral costs
  • CPA fees
  • Probate fees
  • Personal, student or other loans
  • Phone and/or utility bills
Step 6 – Once debts are paid, distribute the remaining assets

When in probate, you must adhere to a specific process for distributing assets to beneficiaries. Personal Representatives will need to list each beneficiary and record the main assets each will receive. The process can be complicated by emotions and in-fighting among relatives. It is not uncommon to hire a mediator to help keep the family intact.

Step 7 – Close the estate

After all the assets have been distributed, you’ll submit the receipts and records to the court. The Personal Representative is responsible for filing the accounting report. Probate won’t close until every penny has been accounted for. If there is a discrepancy with your final accounting filing, it will be rejected, and the probate process will remain open.

Many Personal Representatives feel overwhelmed when going through probate. But, with the right attorney at your side, the process is manageable. They will analyze tax and financial matters, help with distribution of assets and make sure all necessary papers are filed with the probate court. Plus, they can help you manage family expectations in a personable and effective manner.


If you are going through probate, or expect you might be in the future, let us help. 


About the Author 

Patrick Furman, Estate Planning and Probate Attorney

Patrick Furman is an attorney with Epiphany Law and has been practicing Law for over 15 years. He focuses his practice on all aspects of estate, succession and tax planning as well as probate avoidance, irrevocable and revocable trusts, life insurance spendthrift and special needs trusts along with wills durable power of attorney and advanced health directives.



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