When someone dies, the distribution of their assets is ideally determined by a clear and legally binding last will and testament. If not, the assets come under the control of the state, which determines the best way to distribute them.

Wills must go to probate court to prove their validity. Beneficiaries of a will must be notified no later than three months after the will is accepted for probate.

In situations where the will is structured to avoid probate, however, there are no specific notification requirements. Moreover, probated wills are public record. As soon as the will is proven valid, anyone who thinks he or she may be a beneficiary is entitled to view the will at the courthouse where it was filed.

Probates

A probate is a legal process of proving a will is valid. It is administered by a probate court, which examines the will and then collects the assets of the deceased and distributes them to the heirs as named in the will.

Once the probate court declares the will as valid, all beneficiaries are required to be notified within three months, though notification generally occurs much sooner.

Certain wills are structured specifically to avoid probate. This can be done by setting up joint tenancy or making a will payable upon death. In these scenarios, there are no formal notification requirements unless specifically stated in the terms of the will.

Public Record

Probated wills are public record, which means anyone can show up at the courthouse and view them in their entirety. A person who has reason to believe he or she might be included in a will may thus examine the will and see for themselves.

Each county courthouse features a Register of Wills, which is where probated wills may be viewed.

Death Without a Probate

A probate is not required in all circumstances. If the deceased has assets below a certain threshold (determined by each state), probate may not be necessary, and the settlement may be handled privately.

Also, certain types of assets do not have to go to probate court. These assets include pension assets and individual retirement accounts.