What Is Probate Court?

Questions regarding "probate" come up often in the world of estate planning. Most of the conversation focuses on how to avoid probate. Depending on your case, strategies for "avoiding probate" may be extremely useful or completely unnecessary. For more on this, see Avoiding Probate FAQs.

This article explains the most basic features of probate. It also provides a state-by-state guide to probate courts across the country.

What Is Probate?

"Probate" has two meanings. Technically, it refers to the legal process of making sure a last will and testament is valid. More loosely, it refers to the general process of distributing a deceased person's estate.

Although the distribution of the estate takes place under the supervision of a probate court, it is carried out by a person known as the decedent's "personal representative." If the representative is nominated in the decedent's will, they are sometimes known as an "executor." If appointed by the probate court in the absence of a will, they are sometimes known as an "administrator."

If a valid will exists, probate is carried out according to the terms of the will. If a will does not exist, probate is carried out according to state laws of intestate succession. The probate process normally includes the following steps:

  1. Filing a "Petition for Probate"
  2. Validating the decedent's will if one exists
  3. Swearing in a personal representative
  4. Inventorying and appraising the estate
  5. Giving notice to interested parties
  6. Paying estate debts and taxes
  7. Distributing remaining assets to beneficiaries named in the will or, if a will does not exist, to heirs according to intestacy laws

Probate: Pros and Cons

Nearly all probate cases go smoothly. That said, the main downside of probate is that it can sometimes be time-consuming and expensive. For example, many states require waiting periods ranging from 30 to 90 days as part of the probate process. These waiting periods are generally designed to give interested parties a chance to contest the estate distribution before it is finalized.

For example, creditors may hold up estate distribution if they remain unpaid. If there is not enough cash in the estate to pay off debts, some assets may need to be liquidated to cover the expense. Similarly, a disinherited heir may try to contest the validity of the will and seek to have the estate distributed according to intestacy laws instead. All of this can drive up probate time and costs, which may be deducted from the value of the estate itself.

Probate also serves as an important procedural safeguard. For example, if a will really is invalid, the probate process is designed to find out. If the decedent left a more recent will, probate may be the only way to ensure that the decedent's actual wishes are identified and carried out. If the decedent was indebted, the probate process can also give surviving relatives some peace of mind by resolving creditors' claims sooner rather than later.

State-by-State Guide to Probate Courts

The following table provides links to the courts responsible for handling probate in your state. Although some states have courts dedicated entirely to probate, most do not. The table is organized accordingly.

The name of each state also links to Findlaw's state-specific estate planning pages where you can find more information. For a comprehensive guide to state probate laws, see State Laws: Estate & Probate.

Alabama

Alabama has 68 probate courts organized by county. The courts have jurisdiction over mental health, estate, adoption, and real property rights cases. They do not allow jury trials.

Alaska

Alaska does not have a separate probate court. The Superior Courts have jurisdiction over property rights, estate, mental health, and juvenile matters. The court allows jury trials in most cases.

Arizona

Arizona does not have a separate probate court. The Superior Courts have jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters.

Arkansas

Arkansas does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters. The court allows jury trials.

California

California does not have a separate probate court. The Superior Courts have jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters. The courts do not allow jury trials for juvenile cases.

Colorado

Colorado has a separate probate court in Denver County only; in the rest of the state, district courts handle probate proceedings. Additionally, Colorado has a separate juvenile court.

Connecticut

Connecticut has a separate probate court with 130 judges. The court has jurisdiction over estate, adoption, support/custody, paternity, miscellaneous domestic relations, mental health, and miscellaneous civil cases. The court does not allow jury trials.

Delaware

The Delaware Court of Chancery handles probate matters, including estate, real property rights, and mental health. The court allows no jury trials. Delaware has a separate family court that handles juvenile matters and does not allow jury trials.

District of Columbia

The District of Columbia does not have a separate probate court. The Superior Court handles probate matters.

Florida

Florida does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over mental health, estate, and juvenile matters. The court allows jury trials.

Georgia

Georgia has 159 probate courts and 159 judges. Georgia only has probate courts in counties with a population over 96,000 and where the probate judge is an attorney who has been practicing for at least seven years. The courts have jurisdiction over mental health, estate, miscellaneous civil, moving traffic, and DWI/DUI matters.

Hawaii

Hawaii does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over mental health, estate, and juvenile matters. The court allows jury trials.

Idaho

Idaho does not have a separate probate court. The Magistrates Division has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters.

Illinois

Illinois does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over civil and juvenile cases.

Indiana

Indiana has only one specialized probate court (Marion County) with jurisdiction over adoption, estate, and miscellaneous civil and juvenile matters. In the rest of the state, probate proceedings are handled in county superior or district courts.

Iowa

Iowa does not have a separate probate court. The District Court does not allow jury trials in juvenile or mental health cases.

Kansas

Kansas does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over civil and juvenile cases.

Kentucky

Kentucky does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters.

Louisiana

Louisiana does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, adoption, and juvenile matters. However, the state has a separate juvenile court and family court.

Maine

Maine has 16 probate courts under county (not state) court system jurisdiction. The courts have jurisdiction over estate, adoption, and miscellaneous domestic relations matters and do not allow jury trials. The District Court has jurisdiction over mental health and juvenile matters and does not allow jury trials.

Maryland

Maryland has an Orphans' Court in 22 counties with 66 judges that handle estate matters, except in Montgomery and Harford counties, where the Circuit Court handles it.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts has 14 divisions of probate and family courts with 51 justices. The courts have jurisdiction over estate, support/custody, paternity, domestic violence, miscellaneous civil, adoption, and divorce cases. The court does not allow jury trials. The state has a separate juvenile court, which allows jury trials.

Michigan

Michigan has 78 probate courts and 106 judges. The courts have jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters and allow some jury trials.

Minnesota

Minnesota does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters.

Mississippi

The Chancery Court has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, divorce, support/custody, and paternity matters.

Missouri

Missouri does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over probate matters. The Circuit Court has four probate and three deputy probate commissioners.

Montana

Montana does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters and allows jury trials.

Nebraska

Nebraska does not have a separate probate court. Nebraska has 93 County Courts in 12 districts, which have jurisdiction over estate, adoption, and juvenile matters. These courts have 59 judges and allow jury trials, except in juvenile cases. The District Court has jurisdiction over mental health cases.

Nevada

Nevada does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over mental health, estate, and juvenile matters. The court allows jury trials for most cases.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire has two probate courts, which have jurisdiction over adoption, termination of parental rights, guardianships, trusts, wills, estates, involuntary commitments, and some equity matters. The courts do not allow jury trials.

New Jersey

New Jersey does not have a separate probate court. The Superior Court has jurisdiction over civil, estate, and juvenile matters. The court allows jury trials for most cases.

New Mexico

New Mexico has 33 probate courts and 33 judges. These courts have jurisdiction over uncontested estate cases, but contested cases go to District Court. The District Court also has jurisdiction over juvenile and mental health matters.

New York

In New York, the Surrogates Court has jurisdiction over adoptions and estates. The court allows jury trials in estate cases. The Family Court has jurisdiction over guardianship and juvenile cases and does not allow jury trials.

North Carolina

North Carolina does not have a separate probate court. The Superior Court has jurisdiction over estate cases and allows jury trials. The District Court has jurisdiction over mental health and juvenile cases. The District Court allows jury trials in civil cases only.

North Dakota

North Dakota does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters. The court allows jury trials in many cases.

Ohio

In Ohio, the Probate Division of the Court of Common Pleas has jurisdiction over probate matters and handles estate, mental health, and juvenile cases. The court allows jury trials in most cases.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over civil and juvenile cases. The court allows jury trials.

Oregon

In Oregon, there are seven County Courts and seven judges with jurisdiction over adoption, mental health, and juvenile matters. The courts do not allow jury trials.

Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, the Court of Common Pleas has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile cases. The court allows jury trials in most cases.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island has 39 probate courts and 39 judges. The probate courts have jurisdiction over estate cases and do not allow jury trials. The District Court has jurisdiction over mental health cases, and the Family Court has juvenile jurisdiction.

South Carolina

South Carolina has 46 probate courts and 46 judges. The probate courts have jurisdiction over mental health and estate cases and do not allow jury trials. The Family Court has juvenile jurisdiction.

South Dakota

South Dakota does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Court has civil and juvenile jurisdiction.

Tennessee

In Tennessee, § 16-16-201 holds that ". . . all jurisdiction relating to the probate of wills and the administration of estates of every nature . . . is hereby vested in the chancery court of the respective counties" unless specifically given by local legislation to other courts. Shelby County, for example, has established a probate court. Tennessee has 95 counties.

Texas

Texas has 16 probate courts and 16 judges with jurisdiction over estate and mental health matters. The probate courts allow jury trials. In Texas, the County Court of Law, Constitutional County Court, and District Court also have jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters. These courts allow jury trials.

Utah

Utah does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over estate and mental health matters. This court allows jury trials in most case types. The Juvenile Court does not allow jury trials.

Vermont

Vermont has 18 probate courts and 18 judges. The probate court has jurisdiction over mental health, adoption, estate, miscellaneous domestic relations, and miscellaneous civil cases. The court does not allow jury trials.

Virginia

Virginia does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over mental health and estate matters; the District Court has jurisdiction over mental health and juvenile matters.

Washington

Washington does not have a separate probate court. The Superior Court has jurisdiction over estate, mental health, and juvenile matters.

West Virginia

West Virginia does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over mental health, estate, and juvenile cases. The court allows jury trials.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin does not have a separate probate court. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over civil and juvenile matters.

Wyoming

Wyoming does not have a separate probate court. The District Court has jurisdiction over mental health, estate, and juvenile matters.

Have Questions About Probate in Your State? Talk to an Estate Planning Attorney Near You.

The probate process is unified across the country by a common purpose: the orderly distribution of decedents' estates according to their wills or, in the absence of a will, according to state law. Laws vary from state to state. Therefore, whether you are making your own estate plan or are responsible for distributing someone else's estate, a local estate planning attorney can help.

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