Although we have one of the best legal systems in the world in the United States, it can be challenging to navigate for someone who is unfamiliar with it. It can be particularly difficult to try and learn the ins and outs of the legal system if your involvement in the system is related to the probate of an estate. If you are involved in the probate of an estate, that typically means that you recently lost a loved one, meaning you are likely dealing with the legal system during a time of high stress and intense emotions. Whether you are involved as the Executor or Personal Representative of the estate or as a beneficiary or heir of the estate, there is a good chance you are feeling confused and maybe a bit intimidated. Hiring an experienced estate planning lawyer to help you navigate probate court is a wise decision at this point.
Probate Basics – Why Are You Involved in Probate Court?
When trying to navigate a court system, and when determining if you need a layer to help you, it helps to gain a clear understanding of why you are there in the first place. If you are involved in the administration of an estate in probate court, unless you are a creditor of the estate it means that you recently lost a family member or loved one. Your loved one’s estate must go through the legal process of probate. Probate is required for several reasons, including:
- Authenticating or challenging a Last Will and Testament submitted for probate
- Ensuring that all assets owned by the decedent are identified, located, valued, and eventually passed down to the intended beneficiaries and/or heirs of the estate.
- Notifying creditors of the decedent’s death and allowing them the opportunity to file a claims against the estate.
- Making sure that all state and/or federal gift and estate taxes owed by the estate are paid.
What Is Your Role in the Probate Process?
There are three different “categories” of people involved in the probate of an estate, including:
- Executor/Personal Representative – an Executor is the person named by the decedent in his/her Last Will and Testament to oversee the probate process. If the decedent died intestate, or without executing a valid Will prior to death, any competent adult can volunteer to be the Personal Representative (PR) of the estate. The PR serves basically the same function as the Executor.
- Beneficiary/Heir – despite what many people believe, these two words are not interchangeable. A beneficiary is a person, and entity, or even a pet that is named in the decedent’s Will or in a trust to receive a gift from the estate. An heir is someone who would legally inherit from the estate under the North Carolina intestate succession laws.
- Creditor – a creditor is an individual or entity that has a financial claim against the estate.
Is It Necessary to Hire a Lawyer to Help Me in Probate Court?
There is no legal requirement that anyone involved in the probate process hire an attorney; however, there are numerous reasons why it is usually a wise decision.
If you are the Executor/PR you have numerous duties and responsibilities that often require financial and/or legal knowledge that you may not have. Mistakes made during the probate process can cost the beneficiaries/heirs of the estate a great deal of time and money which is why most Executors/PRs retain the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to help.
If you are a beneficiary or heir of the estate the need for an attorney will depend on additional factors. For example, if you are planning to challenge the Will submitted to court by filing a Will contest you should definitely have an attorney on your side. If you are not challenging the Will, and nothing seems amiss with the estate, you may not need to hire an attorney but may choose to do so anyway just for peace of mind.
If you have additional questions about probate court in North Carolina, contact an experienced North Carolina estate planning attorney at The Law Offices of Cheryl David by calling 336-547-9999 to schedule an appointment.