a hand and flowers placed on casket at funeral

What Happens to an Estate After the Death of its Owner?

The passing of a loved one can be a challenging and emotional time. And although there are many legal and financial matters to address after a loved one dies, it can be difficult to navigate through your grief. Understanding what happens to an estate after the death of a loved one can help make the process a little easier. Here’s what to expect. 

What Happens to a Loved One’s Estate After Death?

The Probate Process

When someone passes away, their estate typically goes through probate. During this legal process, the court validates the decedent’s will, addresses any outstanding debts and claims, and oversees the distribution of assets. 

The executor of the estate has two years to file a petition for probate. In most cases, probate takes at least a year and can be pretty expensive for the loved ones left to settle the estate. 

How to Avoid Probate After Death

However, you can help your loved ones avoid probate after your death by creating a living trust. Placing all of your assets in a trust means that they will automatically transfer to your beneficiaries without any need for court involvement. 

Validating the Will

If the deceased person had a will, then the court must validate it and verify the signatures of the testator and witnesses. If the court decides the will is valid, then the estate will be distributed according to the directions laid out in the will. 

However, if the will is invalid, or if there is no will, then the court distributes the assets according to the laws of intestate succession. The assets will go to the decedent’s spouse, children, or other heirs, depending on who has survived them. 

What Does the Estate’s Executor Do?

Appointing a Personal Representative

After someone passes away, the court will also need to appoint a personal representative or executor. If an executor was named the will, the court will typically choose that person. But if no one was named, or that person is unable to fulfill their duty, then the court will choose one of the decedent’s heirs. 

In Arizona, the first choice is the spouse, then any adult children, and then the extended family. However, if no one was named and you want to represent a loved one’s estate, you can apply to be the personal representative

Evaluation of Assets

Next, the personal representative is in charge of taking inventory of all of the estate’s assets and debts. This includes bank accounts, real estate, investments, personal property, and any outstanding debts, bills, or liabilities. Some assets such as vehicles and real estate will likely need to be appraised to determine their value. 

Notifying Creditors and Settling Debts

The personal representative must also notify the creditors of the deceased person’s death. This involves publishing a notice in the local newspaper and mailing a notice to all known creditors.

Another duty of the personal representative or executor is to settle all of the estate’s debts. This can include outstanding bills, tax payments, credit card statements, etc. 

How Do You Know When an Estate Is Settled?

If you are the executor and in charge of settling an estate, the following steps must be completed. But if you simply wish to see if a loved one’s estate has been settled, you can check the estate’s court documents at any time to find out. The court procedures involved in settling an estate are public record. 

Distributing Assets to Beneficiaries

After any debts, taxes, and expenses have been paid, then the remaining assets in the estate can be distributed to the beneficiaries. If there was a will, then the court will oversee the distribution. But with or without a will, the personal representative is in charge of the proper distribution of assets. 

Finalizing Probate

Lastly, the personal representative will file a final accounting with the probate court, which details the financial transactions of the estate. The court will then review the accounting and finalize the probate process, as long as there are no objections or issues. 

Arizona Estate Planning Attorney

If you need help settling a loved one’s estate, or you want to set your own affairs in order, the Phelps LaClair team is here for you. We’ve been helping Arizonans with all their estate planning needs for over 40 years. 

We can explain exactly what happens to an estate after the death of its owner, and what you need to do if you were appointed the executor. Give us a call at 480-892-2488 today to schedule a consultation.


Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (8/9/2023). Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels

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