It is difficult to deal with the death of someone you care about. In the midst of mourning, you may also have to focus on legal issues associated with their estate. Generally, Alabama law requires that estates of decedents must go through probate before the property in the decedent’s probate estate can be legally disbursed to others. The Probate Court in the jurisdiction where the decedent resided when they passed away has jurisdiction over the matter. Ala. Code § 43-8-162. During the process the decedent’s will is validated. Then, the personal representative (PR) assumes responsibility over estate assets and performs the tasks needed to eventually distribute estate assets. While probate is strongly associated with wills, even intestate estates must go through an administration process before their assets can be distributed.
The purposes of the probate and the process of administration process is to wind down the affairs of a decedent and distribute their assets as described in the decedent’s will. If there is no last will and testament, the estate may still have to go through a legal process. However, the assets will be distributed to the decedent’s heirs based on Alabama law.
Once the will, if any, has been deemed valid and the PR has been appointed by the Probate Court, the PR is empowered to assume responsibility over the assets of the estate and move forward with the administration process. There are 3 key steps in the process:
- Identifying, securing, and appraising the estate’s probate property
- Paying the decedent’s debts, expenses of administration, and resolving creditor claims
- Distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries or heirs
In Alabama, probate will take at least 6 months. The length of time depends on a number of factors including the complexity of probate property, the number of beneficiaries or heirs, and whether there are problems such as a challenge to the validity of the will or other litigation.
Problems During Probate
Complications sometimes develop during probate that require court intervention. Probate disputes are not only frustrating and stressful, they also often result in significant delays in the process and added expense to the estate. Issues that commonly lead to disputes and probate litigation include:
- Will contests
- Will constructions
- Creditor claims
- Fiduciary breaches
- Claims of heirship
Consequences of not have having a will Not every decedent leaves a will. Generally speaking, in Alabama all estates must go through court-supervised administration, even if there is no will. If there is no will, the court will deem the decedent intestate and proceed with settling the estate based on Alabama’s intestate succession laws. Ala. Code § 43-8-40. The practical impact of intestacy is that there would be no legally acceptable evidence of to whom the decedent wanted to leave their property. Instead, the PR must look to state law.
Alabama intestacy laws identify only surviving spouses, children, and select blood relatives as possible heirs. If the decedent has no heirs, then their estate would go to the state of Alabama. Ala. Code § 43-8-4. Note that under the law friends, organizations, and in-laws would not be able to inherit.
Alabama Small Estate Administration
Under Alabama’s Small Estate Act, Ala. Code § 43-2-690, if an estate is small, it may qualify for a simplified process. The process allows for a summary distribution of estate property to the decedent’s surviving spouse or other appropriate beneficiaries or heirs, without full probate administration. To qualify, the estate must have assets worth less than $25,000 (adjusted for inflation).
To use this process, there is a special set of rules that must be followed. In addition, the time frame for filing paperwork is different from the time frame of the traditional process. However, like the traditional process, before assets can be distributed, a notice must be published and debts and expenses must be paid.