Probate is the legal process that ensures your debts are paid and legal title of your assets is transferred to the appropriate heirs and beneficiaries. If you have a will, the probate process will determine whether the will is authentic and valid. During the process, an executor will be appointed to administer the estate.
Probate is overseen by the probate court, with the probate judge presiding over and overseeing all aspects of the process. A probate court is a judicial court that primarily deals with matters such as wills, estates and guardianships.
Each state, and even each city or county, will have its own probate courts. The details of the courts and their rules vary. A broad, simple definition of the probate judge’s main responsibility is to oversee the entire probate process for each case assigned to him or her and sign the appropriate probate orders. However, the roles and duties of the probate judge depend on three main factors: the size of the probate estate, whether the probate estate is contested, and whether the deceased left a last will and testament.
In cases where a last will and testament is available, the probate judge’s role can be minimal, and the probate process can take less time. If there is no last will and testament available, the deceased is considered to have died intestate, and the probate process might take a longer time. The probate judge takes a more direct role in the probate process of an intestate’s estate. Additionally, if a will is contested, the probate judge is responsible for ruling on the authenticity of the document and perhaps the mental capability of the person who signed it.
Probate judges generally are appointed by the state governor or state legislature to the county probate court. Details and operations of probate courts vary significantly around the country, including the salary of the probate judge. In 2018, the median salary for probate judges was around $160,000.
When a last will and testament is left and there are no major contests to the document, the probate judge has a very minimal role in the probate process. The main responsibilities of the judge in this scenario would be to officially appoint the executor named in the will and sign any documents and orders filed with the court that are required by the probate process. Other basic roles of probate court judges include: assuring that the deceased person’s debts are paid and the remaining assets are distributed to the correct beneficiaries.
If there are issues during the probate process or a contest of the last will and testament, the probate judge will be much more involved. The judge reviews evidence and listens to the arguments of the contesting parties. Eventually the judge makes decisions and issues rulings on the disagreements. The authority to settle the will contest is the judge’s in cases such as when more than one will is discovered, there’s an apparent error in the document, two potential beneficiaries claim rights to the same property, there’s a disagreement over the management of the probate estate, and many other instances.
If the deceased died intestate, or without a last will and testament available, the probate judge decides on the estate administrator, a role similar to the executor. After the administrator performs his or her duties of inventorying the estate, paying debts, etc., the probate judge determines how the assets are distributed according to the state’s intestate distribution law.
Valuable contributions to this summary of “What Are the Roles and Responsibilities of the Probate Judge?” were made by Bob Carlson, editor of the Retirement Watch financial advisory service and chairman of the Board of Trustees of Virginia’s Fairfax County Employees’ Retirement System with more than $4 billion in assets.
Katie Kao is an editorial intern with Eagle Financial Publications.