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Estate Administration

Estate Administration

Any probate lawyer will tell you that wills are the most common way for people to state their preferences about how their property should be handled after their death. A will is similar to an instruction booklet for the probate court, the court that oversees estate administration and disputes over the will itself. The will provides the court with guidance as to how to distribute the deceased person’s assets in accordance with his or her wishes.

In and Out of Probate

Wills have been referred to as “tickets to probate court.” In large estates, the only way to legally transfer assets in accordance with the will is through the probate process. However, wills only control probate assets, that is, those assets that can be transferred by the probate court. Some assets do not have to be probated and generally are not controlled by a will. These assets include:

  • Life insurance proceeds, which are paid to the beneficiaries designated in the policy.
  • Property held in joint tenancy, which provides that, upon the death of one joint tenant, the deceased person’s interest automatically passes to the surviving joint tenant(s).
  • Property held in living trusts.

Because these assets are transferred by means other than the probate process, a will generally does not control how they are distributed.

Example: A person names her spouse in a beneficiary designation to receive her life insurance proceeds on her death. In her will, she names her sister to receive those same proceeds. Because the proceeds are paid directly to the spouse, they never become part of the deceased person’s estate. Therefore, her will, which only controls her estate, cannot override the beneficiary designation.

Will Validity

A will must meet certain formal requirements in order to be valid, otherwise it may be challenged during the probate process. These requirements vary from state to state. Generally, the person making the will (the “testator”) must be an adult of sound mind, meaning that the testator must be able to understand the full meaning of the document. Wills must be written in most circumstances. Some states allow a will to be in the testator’s own handwriting, but a better and more enforceable option is to have a typed or pre-printed document.

A testator must sign his or her own will, unless he or she is unable to do so, in which case the testator must direct another person to sign the will in the presence of witnesses, and the signature must be witnessed and/or notarized. A valid will remains in force until revoked or superseded by a subsequent valid will. Some changes may be made by amendment (a “codicil”) without requiring a complete re-write.

Limitations of a Last Will and Testament

Some legal restrictions prevent a testator from giving full effect to his or her wishes. Some laws prohibit disinheritance of spouses or dependent children. A married person cannot completely disinherit a spouse without the spouse’s consent, usually in a prenuptial agreement. In most jurisdictions, a surviving spouse has a right of election, which allows the spouse to take a legally determined percentage (up to one-half) of the estate when he or she is dissatisfied with the will. Non-dependent children may be disinherited, but this preference should be clearly stated in the will in order to avoid confusion and possible legal challenges.

Will Executor or Personal Rep

A will usually appoints an executor or personal representative to perform the specific wishes of the testator after he or she dies. The personal representative consolidates and manages the testator’s assets, collects any debts owed to the testator at death, sells property necessary to pay estate taxes or expenses, and files all necessary court and tax documents for the estate.

Dying Without a Valid Will is called Intestacy

While wills may be “tickets” to go through the probate process, not having a will forces the probate court to distribute the property without guidance from the testator. Dying without a will leaves an estate intestate, and a probate court must step in to divide up the estate using legal defaults in order to give property to surviving relatives. A personal representative must still be appointed, but the court must choose someone rather than following the deceased person’s wishes.

The court pays any unpaid debts and death expenses first, and then follows the legal guidelines. The rules vary depending on whether the deceased was married and had children, and whether the spouse and children are alive. If the intestate individual has no surviving spouse, children or grandchildren the estate is divided between various other relatives. Therefore, intestacy means that people who would never have been chosen to receive property may do so. Additionally, state intestacy laws only recognize relatives, so close friends or charities that the deceased favored do not receive anything.

If no relatives are found, the estate goes to the government in its entirety. Intestacy also poses a heavy tax burden on estate assets. When made aware of the consequences of intestacy, most people prefer to leave instructions rather than subject their survivors and property to mandated division.

Probate isn’t Necessary in Every Case

Where some small estates are concerned, a will may not have to be probated. If the value of the assets in the estate is below a threshold established by state law, a short estate proceeding may avoid the probate process entirely.

Free Consultation with a Utah Estate and Probate Attorney

If you are here, you probably have an estate issue you need help with, call Ascent Law for your free estate law consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.

Michael R. Anderson, JD

Ascent Law LLC
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States

Telephone: (801) 676-5506

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Michael Anderson

About the Author

People who want a lot of Bull go to a Butcher. People who want results navigating a complex legal field go to a Lawyer that they can trust. That’s where I come in. I am Michael Anderson, an Attorney in the Salt Lake area focusing on the needs of the Average Joe wanting a better life for him and his family. I’m the Lawyer you can trust. I grew up in Utah and love it here. I am a Father to three, a Husband to one, and an Entrepreneur. I understand the feelings of joy each of those roles bring, and I understand the feeling of disappointment, fear, and regret when things go wrong. I attended the University of Utah where I received a B.A. degree in 2010 and a J.D. in 2014. I have focused my practice in Wills, Trusts, Real Estate, and Business Law. I love the thrill of helping clients secure their future, leaving a real legacy to their children. Unfortunately when problems arise with families. I also practice Family Law, with a focus on keeping relationships between the soon to be Ex’s civil for the benefit of their children and allowing both to walk away quickly with their heads held high. Before you worry too much about losing everything that you have worked for, before you permit yourself to be bullied by your soon to be ex, before you shed one more tear in silence, call me. I’m the Lawyer you can trust.