How Probate Works in Iowa
No two probate processes are quite alike. Each probate will vary substantially by the size, complexity, and elements of an individual estate. Still, there are numerous universal steps that practically every personal representative will need to follow.
Our West Des Moines probate attorneys can guide you through each of the following probate steps:
- Identification of the last will and testament. Hopefully, the deceased has engaged in some form of estate planning, including the writing and formalization of a will. This document will serve as guide for the eventual distribution of assets, and it will also name a proposed executor to manage the estate’s probate.
- Filing a petition with the appropriate Iowa probate court. To initiate probate, a petition must be filed with the local court in which the deceased lived at the time of their passing. If a will has been located, the named executor typically engages. Otherwise, an immediate family member can safely petition the court.
- Petitioning to appoint a personal representative to the estate. Once the petition to initiate probate has been received and reviewed, the court will promptly move to appoint an executor or personal representative. It is at this point that the last will and testament will have to be formally validated and recognized in order to accept the chosen executor. This is where many estate disputes begin, as family members or other interested parties may claim that a will is invalid for reasons of undue influence or because the testator was not of sound mind at the time of its writing. Probate cannot proceed until these conflicts are resolved and a will is validated or thrown out. Should the court need to appoint a personal representative in lieu of an executor, they will typically choose a close family member willing to accept the position.
- Notifying creditors. The personal representative is responsible for investigating any creditors to which the decedent still owes a debt or some other obligation. These creditors must be informed of the decedent’s passing and be provided instructions on how to seek payment as the probate process continues.
- Notifying beneficiaries. If a will was accepted, the personal representative can review its contents and identify each of the beneficiaries that stands to receive assets. These beneficiaries must be contacted and informed of both the decedent’s passing as well as their status as an heir. Should no will exist or if a will was thrown out without replacement, the state’s intestacy laws apply. This means that beneficiaries to the decedent’s property will consist of their surviving immediate family members. In these cases, all family members that stand to inherit assets should be contacted.
- Inventorying and appraisal of estate assets. The property discussed in the will may not encapsulate all of the elements of the deceased’s estate. Whether a will is involved or not, the personal representative is required to conduct a thorough inventory of the decedent’s known assets. For many types of property, including real estate, appraisals will be necessary to determine value.
- Settling of decedent debts. An estate is still responsible for the payment of debts and obligations after someone passes away. The personal representative must address all creditors that come forward with valid claims. Ideally, the deceased will have anticipated some or all of these debts and set aside funds to pay them. Otherwise, the personal representative may be forced to liquidate estate assets to settle debts, even if the property is named in the will. Should there be insufficient means of paying all debts, the court may issue prioritize the payment of certain debts. Many choose to avoid the possibility of their property being sold to pay old debts by placing assets in trusts, which generally bypass the probate process.
- Filing of tax returns and payment of estate taxes. The personal representative is responsible for filing the final personal tax returns for the decedent. If their estate is sufficiently large, they may also need to pay any mandated estate taxes. Assets placed in trusts do not count toward an estate’s valuation for tax purposes.
- Distribution of assets to beneficiaries. Once debts have been settled, the personal representative is authorized to distribute remaining assets to beneficiaries. If a will is in play, the representative will follow its instructions. If no will is available, intestacy laws must be followed instead.
- Submitting the final report and settling the estate. After all assets have been distributed, the personal representative must prepare a “final report” that includes all actions and transactions they took throughout the process, including evidence that they notified creditors and heirs, paid debts, sold property, and gave items to the appropriate parties. Upon reviewing and approving this report, the court will formally “settle” the decedent’s estate, ending the personal representative’s duties.