It's very difficult for spouses, family members and close friends to deal with their loved one's passing and to complicate matters even more, they have to start thinking about what to do with their loved one's property and making sure that an inheritance is passed on to the heirs. What some people may not realize is that often times they will have to go to court in order to transfer the decedent's assets into someone else's name; this process is called probate.
Probate is the process where a will is adjudicated to be valid and unless there is a will contest, that decision is made in the Surrogate's Office. While a will can be brought to the Surrogate's Office anytime after someone's death, probate proceedings and the issuance of letters can only occur after the 11th day after the death.
An executor will be appointed by the court to administrate the estate if there is a will. If there is no will, then the court shall appoint an administrator. An administrator is the person appointed by the Surrogate's Court to settle an estate when someone dies without a will. Both executors and administrators are considered personal representatives, both of which have a duty to answer to the court and follow all court-mandated procedures pertaining to the administration of estates.
While probate proceedings can take up to a year or longer, which can be frustrating for beneficiaries and personal representatives, both beneficiaries and personal representatives can benefit from the probate process. From the beneficiaries' point of view, probate can be a good thing because the executor's actions are closely supervised by the court and he or she must comply with certain procedures and they must answer to the court. This well-organized system places restraints on the executor and thereby prohibits dishonest or immoral actions that would harm the estate or the beneficiaries directly.
As far as personal representatives, probate provides a roadmap, and a framework for the administration of estates. Since the average person knows little to nothing about estate law, managing an estate, estate and gift taxes, and providing accountings to the court, having a probate judge and the Surrogate's Court oversee estate administration can be viewed as a reassuring thing, as opposed to something to be apprehensive about.
If you have been appointed an executor or an administrator of a New Jersey estate, it's important to understand that unless you're a professional, this isn't something that should be handled alone. As the founder of the Harris Law Offices, I have over 30 years of experience representing clients through the estate administration process. I am a regular at the Camden County Surrogate's Court and well-respected in the local community and have earned numerous recognitions; for example, I have been included in New Jersey's selection of Super Lawyers®, I am rated 10.0 Superb by Avvo, and I have earned the BV Distinguished® distinction from Martindale-Hubbell®.