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When someone dies, they may leave behind a few surprises, namely, who will inherit their estate.
This happened when Dick Robinson, CEO of the children's book publisher Scholastic, left control of the $1.2 billion company to Scholastic's Chief Strategy Officer (also his girlfriend) instead of his children, siblings, and ex-wife, with whom he was on friendly terms.
A person making the will, called a "testator," identifies their beneficiaries and grants them specific gifts, such as money, real estate, or personal property. Or they designate the beneficiaries to share in the overall estate. However, a testator often does not tell the beneficiaries who they are and what they might receive as a gift, called a "bequest."
Clearly, Robinson's family had no idea they would not inherit the business.
Probate is a court-administered proceeding over someone's estate. When a person dies, their last will and testament is entered into a probate court where the deceased person (called a decedent) lived. The court appoints a personal representative or executor (usually the person named in the will) to manage the estate.
The personal representative's job is to notify the beneficiaries of a will.
You may have images of families and friends gathered for the reading of a will. That is purely a dramatic Hollywood trope. The practice of a lawyer reading the will began when illiteracy rates were high and family members lived near one another. It is now outdated since most beneficiaries can read, and lawyers can easily provide copies of the will to them. Typically, you might receive a certified letter from the personal representative notifying you that you are a beneficiary. However, you can always contact the estate attorney to explain the will to you.
Typically, a personal representative must notify the named beneficiaries within 90 days of submitting the will into probate. The personal representative must notify the beneficiaries within 60 days if there is a trust. If you are a beneficiary and do not receive notice, contact an estate planning attorney near you to seek legal advice and represent your interests.
Family members (heirs at law) and beneficiaries may get a copy of the will, as well as estate attorneys, personal representatives, trustees, and accountants.
Wills are a public record. Once a personal representative files the will with the probate court, it becomes a public document. You can request a copy from the probate court where the decedent was a resident. To find a copy of the will, you must do the following:
Alternatively, you may ask the court if you want notice when a will is filed. For example, under Florida state law, an interested party can file a caveat in Florida to receive notification before a probate proceeding begins. An interested party is someone who expects to receive something from an estate, such as a relative or creditor. Other jurisdictions have similar ways to request notice.
If you expected to receive an inheritance and were not named in the will, you might be able to challenge a will in court if you have standing. This is a difficult, complex process, however. And if there is no will or the will is invalid, the probate court considers the decedent intestate, meaning without a will. Then state intestacy laws govern who can inherit.
The probate process for a simple estate could range from a few months to two years. During estate administration, the personal representative inventories the estate's assets, pays creditors, and gives the remainder to the beneficiaries of the estate. If there are lawsuits, probate could drag on for years. The musician Prince's estate took six years to resolve (Note: He did not have a will). When you make a will, probate is a more streamlined process, so it benefits your family if you have a will.
If you are not a named beneficiary in a will, you can still be a beneficiary. Money and property can pass outside of a will. For example, a loved one may name you as the beneficiary of a bank account, life insurance policy, or trust.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.