The period following the passing away of a beloved member of the family is difficult. The last thing family members want to concentrate on are the countless legal requirements related to finishing up their affairs. However, as difficult as it is to think about, there are legal matters that must be cared for. The legal process involves proving the will, if the decedent had one, and administering their estate. Jurisdiction over probate and estate matters rests in the Probate Court. There is a Probate Court in each of the counties in the state of Connecticut. The appropriate Probate Court is the one in the same county as where the decedent lived at the time of death. C.G.S. § 45a-98. Probate can be complicated and long. In Connecticut it typically takes at least 6 months, but can take significantly longer if there are complications.
The probate process begins when a petition is filed with the court along with the will. The judge will review the will to determine if it valid. If so, the judge will admit it to probate and empower the personal representative to begin the process of managing the decedent’s estate and ultimately distributing its assets. Managing the estate involves several steps:
- Identifying estate assets. Note that only probate property is subject to probate. Other property such as real estate owned in joint tenancy with survivorship rights, life insurance proceeds, and assets in a joint bank account immediately transfer to the new owner without being subject to probate.
- Appraising assets. The value of the estate must be determined. When it comes to financial property such as bank accounts and investment accounts, it may be as simple as reviewing the recent statements or checking online accounts. With other property, such as jewelry and real estate, an experienced appraiser may have to be hired to determine their value.
- Paying creditors and final bills. As the administrator of the estate, the personal representative is responsible for making sure that the bills that the decedent left unpaid are addressed. Estate debts and expenses must be paid out of estate assets prior to the asset distribution. If the personal representative fails to do so, they may face personal liability for any claims that were timely filed and valid, but not paid.
- Filing and paying taxes. The personal representative must file the decedent’s final tax returns and pay any taxes owed.
- Distributing assets. The transfer of assets to beneficiaries is among the final tasks in the process.
Problems During Probate
Not surprisingly, problems can occur during probate leading to disagreements and litigation. Probate litigation will make the process more complicated and time consuming. It will also make it more stressful for the personal representative, beneficiaries, and heirs. Probate litigation occurs when there is a disagreement among parties that they are unable to resolve through negotiation. Instead, the parties must litigate the issues in court.
One of the common sources of disagreement is the will itself. Difficult family dynamics can lead to suspicions about the validity of the will and accusations of duress, undue influence, forgery, and fraud. If a beneficiary or heir objects to the will, a will contest will follow. The court must listen to the arguments and review the evidence to make sure that the will presented does in fact reflect the true wishes of the decedent.
Other reasons for probate litigation include accusations of malfeasance by the personal representative, questions about the estate accounting, and disagreements over how to interpret the terms of the will.
The absence of a will does not exempt the estate from the court-supervised administration. The Probate Court will appoint a personal representative who will perform the activities to settle the estate. Instead of distributing assets to named beneficiaries, the personal representative would distribute assets to the decedent’s heirs according to Connecticut’s rules of intestate succession. C.G.S. § 45a-437. Estate property will go to the decedent’s surviving spouse or children. If there is neither, the statute explains which blood relatives would be entitled to inherit. If there are questions related to relatedness, a kinship hearing may be required to prove consanguinity and right to inherit.
Small Estate Administration
While typically estates must go through a formal administration process that takes at least 6 months, if the estate has minimal assets, it may qualify for a simplified process that can result in assets being distributed in about 30 days. C.G.S. § 45a-273. To qualify for the small estate process, the total value of the estate must not exceed $40,000.
To initiate the process, an Affidavit in Lieu of Probate of Will/Administration must be filed listing the estate assets and their value. Typically, the surviving spouse or next of kin files the affidavit. The Affidavit will also list the estate’s debt and expenses. The probate court will the issue a decree authorizing the estate bills and expenses to be paid. Any remaining assets are distributed to beneficiaries and heirs.