A civil court judge and an official of the state’s judicial system, a probate judge, is the state official who supervises the cases brought before the probate court system.
Explanation of a Probate Judge, Along with Some Examples
The legal questions that arise in connection with the estates of people who have passed away or who may not have the mental capacity to manage their own estates are decided by a judge who specializes in probate law. Guardianship cases involving minors or other individuals who are unable to manage their own affairs may also be heard and decided by probate judges.
One can’t find probate courts in every state or every county. In some jurisdictions, these courts are referred to as the “surrogate’s courts.” Both names refer to the same legal problems, and the roles and responsibilities of the judges appointed to oversee these problems are, for the most part, interchangeable. The role that a probate judge plays in the administration of an estate can change depending on a number of factors, including whether the deceased person left a will, whether they passed away intestate (which means they did not leave a will), and the value of the estate.
The precise responsibilities of the judge in a case can also change depending on whether or not all of the parties involved (including the personal representative or executor of the estate, the heirs-at-law, and the beneficiaries named in the will) can get along with one another and whether or not a will contest brought forward.
A person is considered to be an heir-at-law if their relationship to the deceased was such that, had the deceased passed away without leaving a will, the law would have dictated that they should inherit from the estate.
How Does a Judge Handle Probate Cases?
Once an executor or personal representative has been appointed, the probate judge is responsible for monitoring and approving each step of the probate administration process.
Creditors need to be informed that the deceased person is no longer alive, and they need to be given a window of opportunity to file legal claims against the decedent for the money that the decedent owed them. The length of time they have available is specified by state law. It is then the responsibility of the executor or the personal representative to determine whether or not these claims are legitimate and, if they are, to pay for them using funds from the estate.
Suppose the executor or personal representative of the estate rejects a creditor’s claim on the grounds that they do not believe it to be legitimate. In that case, the dispute will typically be brought before a judge. The judge in charge of the estate’s administration is the one who makes the decision regarding whether or not one should pay the creditor. Even this will almost certainly lead to legal action being taken.
After all of the decedent’s creditors have been paid or their claims have been resolved, the executor or personal representative must distribute any remaining assets to the beneficiaries as outlined in terms of the will left by the decedent. In the case that the deceased individual did not leave a will, the state law would determine who would inherit their assets and give them to those heirs. In either case, the judge’s approval of a final order, signed by the judge, is necessary before the estate can be closed.
Will-owned Estates in the Absence of a Contest
When a deceased person leaves a will, and there are no significant disagreements regarding the distribution of their estate, the estate is said to be “uncontested.” In most circumstances like this one, the probate judge’s role in administering the estate is relatively minor. They will look over the orders and sign them as they are presented to them by the executor or by an attorney who one may have hired to help the executor with their duties.
Orders from the probate court are typically required for an estate to complete one stage of the process and move on to the subsequent one.
It is necessary to have all orders in place to authorize the sale of estate assets if necessary to pay the deceased person’s creditors. The orders that officially open the estate and formally appoint the executor to act on behalf of the estate on behalf of the decedent are examples of standard orders. When the probate process has been finished, it is generally necessary to have an order issued to close the estate.
The majority of states have enacted laws that make it possible for certain beneficiaries of small estates to receive their inheritances through a simplified, less formal or “summary” form of the probate process. In these types of proceedings, the involvement of the court can be extremely minimal, and the judge will need to have very little interaction with the parties. This choice, for instance, can be made for estates with a value of no more than $166,250 in California, provided that the estate in question does not contain any real property. It is not necessary for the survivors to show up in court in order to transfer these assets to the beneficiaries or heirs, provided that there are no complications.
Disputed Estates That Have a Will
Suppose the deceased person left a will, and there is any disagreement or animosity among the executor, the beneficiaries, and/or the heirs-at-law. In that case, the judge overseeing the probate process will become much more involved in the proceedings. It’s possible that the judge will have to address challenges to the will’s validity that were brought forward by the heirs-at-law.
If a parent had passed away without leaving a will, for instance, it’s possible that an adult child would have been eligible to inherit from them. If there is a will, but they are not mentioned in it, and as a result, they receive nothing, they might contest the will by filing a challenge to it. The judge would have to decide whether the omission was accidental or intentional and whether the deceased person intended for the heir-at-law to be disinherited.
The judge will investigate whether another issue with the form of the will cause it to be invalid according to the legal requirements stated in the statute. It’s possible that the adult child has an older will as well as a more recent one that does include them. The judge would be the one to decide which should be honored given the circumstances of the situation.
It is possible that the judge will be asked to mediate other conflicts that have arisen between the executor and the beneficiaries. These can range from perceived problems with the manner in which the executor is administering the estate—for example. There are frequent complaints that the process is taking too long—to disagreements among the beneficiaries as to how one should handle particular estate assets.
The following are examples of “grounds” or reasons that you can use to contest a will:
- That the will does not conform to the laws of the state, such as because it lacks sufficient witness signatures, which means that it isn’t valid, its terms can’t be enforced, and that another individual or individuals pressured the decedent into including certain terms in the will. That the decedent was coerced into including certain terms in the will.
- That the deceased person did not have the capacity to make decisions when they signed the will.
Will contests almost always result in full-fledged litigation and a trial, both of which are required to be presided over by a judge from the relevant probate court.
When assets need to be liquidated to pay the operating expenses of the estate as well as the decedent’s debts, beneficiaries frequently try to object to the sale of those assets.
Estates That Do Not Contain a Will
Because there is no will to name an executor, the first order of business for the probate judge when a deceased person leaves no will is to choose a personal representative who will be responsible for managing the estate throughout the process of probate. A personal representative fulfills the same role as an executor does when there is a will; however, the appointment of the personal representative is left up to the judge because the deceased person did not leave a will expressing their wishes.
When choosing a personal representative for an estate, some states’ statutes and rules limit the choices that probate judges have available to them. The surviving spouse typically has the first right to the job, and the adult children would be the next in line if the surviving spouse did not wish to take on the responsibility or was unable to do so for some reason.
If all of the deceased person’s heirs-at-law consent to the appointment of a personal representative, the court will typically appoint that person. If the heirs-at-law are able to get along with one another, they will most likely reduce the role of the probate judge in the administration of the estate to a minimal level after that point. The judge would merely sign orders as the estate is administered, very similar to how they would handle an estate in the event that there was a will.
One typical step is gathering the assets belonging to the deceased. During this step, the executor or personal representative may take actual possession of a tangible piece of property; however, they may also identify and locate assets such as investment accounts, bank accounts, and insurance policies instead.
How much do judges who oversee probate get paid?
It is common for the salaries of judges serving in various types of courts, including the probate court, to be highly dependent on their geographic location. Courts in more populous metropolitan areas generally pay more than those in more rural counties. Rather than at the state level, salaries are typically determined at the county level.
In the year 2020, the median annual salary for all judges and magistrates across the country was $141,080. It is important to keep in mind that “median” does not correspond to “average” in any way. The term “median” indicates that half of their earnings were higher than this amount and the other half were lower.
How Many Years of Experience Are Necessary, and What Kind of Education Is Needed to Become a Probate Judge?
Judges are required to have graduated from law schools that have been granted accreditation. Many states also mandate that they have passed their state’s bar examinations and spent some time working as attorneys before being appointed to the bench. Judges are typically appointed to their positions by either the governor or the legislature of their respective states. Some are chosen to serve.
Probate courts are typically located in one location within each county in the United States. Some rural counties have very low populations and choose to send their probate cases to the state capital or a larger county located nearby.
- Probate judges preside over proceedings and make decisions regarding the estates of deceased people and living people who are deemed unable to manage their own estates. Probate judges can also oversee the estates of living people who have been declared unable to manage their own estates.
- They have the authority to hear matters concerning contested estates with wills, uncontested estates with wills, and estates in which there is no will.
- Not all estate issues end up in probate court. The involvement of a probate judge is reduced to a minimum when wills are not contested.
- Most probate judges are also attorneys, accounting for their six-figure salaries.