One someone passes away, regardless of whether they have an estate plan, the legal process that distributes the deceased person’s assets is called probate. If the person died with a legally enforceable will, the probate court will distribute that person’s assets according to their will. If, on the other hand, that person died without a legally enforceable will, our state’s probate laws and ultimately, the probate court judge determine how those assets are distributed.

The probate process

Here, our probate courts are the county Surrogate Court. These are the courts that release the probate legal documents. These include the Letters of Testamentary or Letters of Administration. The Letters of Testamentary is for the executor of the will, and the Letters of Administration are given to the administrator.

After one of these legal documents are distributed, the county Surrogate Court proceedings can begin. The court first appoints the personal representative named in the will or another person to administer the estate, if a will does not specify the person or there is no will.

Personal representative responsibilities

The personal representative, regardless of whether they are appointed by the court or will, has several responsibilities. They must compile the assets of the deceased individual, also called the decedent. They then use those assets to pay the decedent’s bills and debts. These include their own administrative expenses, taxes, funeral expenses and any other outstanding debts. Finally, after these expenses have been paid, they distribute the remaining assets as specified in the will or dictated by state law.

Estate administration options

If the decedent’s assets, also called their estate, is small, the law allows for a simplified probate process in two situations. First, if there is no legally enforceable will, the total estate is less than $20,000 and the only legal beneficiary is a surviving domestic partner or spouse, the simplified probate process used.

Second, if there is no will and the estates is less than $10,000, the simplified probate process may apply. But, there has to be no surviving domestic partner or spouse, and there is only one heir, this process can be used. Finally, even if there are other heirs, if they give written consent to give their share to a single heir, the simplified probate process applies.

Of course, this is a very simplified overview. The New Jersey probate process is complicated, which is why the courts usually recommend an attorney.