The purpose of probate law is to provide a framework for dealing with the estates of those who have passed away. It provides for the orderly transfer of the property of a decedent to others, whether or not the decedent left a will. In Iowa, the District Court serves as the probate court and has jurisdiction over probate and estate matters. Probate is initiated by the filing of a petition with the District Court. Typically, it is the personal representative named in the will who files the petition along with the will. If there is no will, then only a petition is filed. Initiating probate is necessary but can be difficult. It is emotionally challenging to focus on the legalities surrounding the death of a loved one.
Probate is commonly referred to as the process of “settling” an estate. This means that during probate the decedent’s outstanding affairs are taken care of. The personal representative is responsible for managing the estate through probate. If the decedent left any debt, the personal representative must see to it that those debts are paid to the extent that there are assets in the estate to do so. Once all valid debts are paid, if there are any assets left in the estate, title to those assets must be transferred to others. This is the last step in “settling” the estate.
Of course, there are several intermediary steps that must be completed by the personal representative. For example, creditors must be notified of the passing of the decedent and are given time to file claims against the estate. Estate assets must be appraised to determine what is available to pay debts and distribute to beneficiaries. Unexpected events may occur such as someone initiating litigation against the estate, delaying the process.
In the absence of a will, the court must refer to Iowa’s law of intestate succession to determine who has the legal right to inherit the decedent’s property. Iowa Code § 633.210.
Probate litigation can put a halt to the probate process. Probate litigation occurs when someone disagrees with an aspect of the process and asks the court to settle it. Probate litigation can only be initiated by someone who is an interested party to the process. The personal representative, beneficiaries named in the will, beneficiaries named in a prior will, the decedent’s legal heirs, other fiduciaries, and creditors typically have standing to initiate probate litigation. On the other hand, a best friend, employee, in-law, or distant relative generally do not have standing in a probate case.
Probate disputes can center on a wide variety of issues. For example, if someone was a beneficiary of the decedent’s first will, but was cut out of the decedent’s second will, that person may feel that something untoward led to the decedent making a new will. That person would have standing to initiate a will contest that challenges the validity of the will. Other reasons for probate litigation include ambiguities in the will, malfeasance by the personal representative or other fiduciary, questions about right to inherit, and challenges to the estate accounting.
Small Estate Procedures
In Iowa, probate can take up to two years. However, there are two alternatives to the formal, long probate process that are available to small estates that meet the eligibility requirements.
Distribution of Property by Affidavit
Where someone has a claim to ownership to property held by the estate, after the expiration of a 40-day waiting period, they can seek immediate distribution of that property by filing an affidavit with the probate court. Iowa Code § 633.356. To be eligible for this process, the probate estate must have a value of $50,000 or less and must not contain real property. When using this process, probate is not necessary.
Those entitled to file an affidavit include beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will and intestate heirs. In addition, if the decedent received medical services paid for by the state, then the Iowa Medicaid agency would have the right to file an affidavit to recover the debt.
Administration of Small Estates
Under Iowa Code § 635.1, if an estate has assets with a value of $200,000 or less, the personal representative can petition the court requesting to use the simplified procedure. Under the small estate process, the distribution of assets can take place much more quickly and with less court supervision.