Probate is a legal process to distribute an estate to heirs after a person dies, unless the assets are in a trust. A probate judge oversees the process, but the details are handled by an executor, administrator or representative. The court appoints this person if one isn't designated in a will. A key part of the job is identifying all the assets and putting a value on them.
Inventory the Estate
Probate laws vary among states, but in general the executor or administrator, called a referee in California, must locate all real estate or other property, bank accounts and any other assets, such as stocks or bonds. In most cases, the administrator actually takes custody of assets by having deeds and other titles put in the estate name. A copy of the inventory normally is filed with the probate court.
Exclude Some Property
The inventory excludes any property that passes directly to an heir. In community property states, for instance, a house, vehicle or other property is automatically passed to a surviving spouse. Any property in joint tenancy with right of survival also is excluded; this could be something like a vacation house shared with a child who would inherit it as a joint tenant.
Appraise the Assets
Once an inventory is completed, the administrator is responsible for appraising the estate, putting a value on each item. The administrator usually hires an independent professional appraiser who will examine all the items and assign a value to each one. An appraisal doesn’t have to list every coat or dress or cellphone, but must account for all major items like vehicles or artworks.
Administrator Files Appraisal
The administrator files the appraisal listing the fair market value of each asset with the court. Normally copies of the inventory and appraisal also are given to heirs or beneficiaries named in the will. Once a final accounting is completed, to deduct any appraisal fees, loan payments or other administrative expenses, the court will order distribution of the estate.
Bob Haring has been a news writer and editor for more than 50 years, mostly with the Associated Press and then as executive editor of the Tulsa, Okla. "World." Since retiring he has written freelance stories and a weekly computer security column. Haring holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.