After someone dies, an estate going through probate involves proving in court the validity of the decedent's will, determining the decedent's assets, appraising the assets, and paying off taxes and bills, explains Nolo. After these steps, the executor distributes the balance of the estate's assets to designated beneficiaries.
The executor, or personal representative, is the person responsible for settling a decedent's estate, according to About.com. The executor may be named in the will or appointed by the court. After the probate judge verifies that the will is genuine, the executor locates and inventories the decedent's assets at the time of death. The executor must identify and inform all known creditors, place a newspaper notice to inform any unknown creditors of the death and use estate assets to pay off any outstanding bills. The executor must also file a last income tax return for the decedent and pay off any federal and state income or estate taxes.
If the estate does not have enough cash to settle all the final bills, the executor may have to sell some of the estate's property, according to Nolo. Only after paying all the decedent's debts is the executor able to distribute any remaining assets to beneficiaries in the will. Probate typically takes from a few months to a year and involves considerable expenses in the form of court fees and lawyers.
Specific probate laws vary among states. However, the general process is the same, as About.com reports.