When someone passes away, their affairs must be settled through a legal proceeding called probate or estate administration. The branch of the judiciary that serves at the probate court and is responsible for estate matters is the Probate Division of the Circuit Court.
Role of Probate Court
The Circuit Court is involved in every step of the process of probating a will and administering an estate. To initiate an estate proceeding, a petition must be filed with Circuit Court, along with the death certificate. If there is a will, the will must also be submitted.
Probating a Will
If the decedent left a will, it must be probated. Typically, it is the person named in the will to serve as the personal representative (executor) who files the petition and will with the court. The court will review the will to make sure it meets the legal requirements. If so, the court will admit the will to probate and will also formally appoint the petitioner as personal representative.
Note that when the petition and will are filed with the Circuit Court, certain parties are notified including beneficiaries and heirs. If any of these parties believes that the will is not valid and should to be probated, they can file an objection. Doing so will suspend the process until the court reviews evidence from both sides and makes a determination.
Regardless of whether there is a will, the estate must go through an administration process during which the decedent’s affairs are settled. The personal representative is the person responsible for managing the estate during the administration process and seeing to it that all tasks necessary to finish up any business the decedent left behind including paying the decedent’s outstanding debt and passing on their possessions to others according to the directions in the decedent’s will or according to the requirements of Missouri law. While the personal representative’s duty is to care of the administration tasks, the Circuit Court remains involved by overseeing the personal representative’s activities. In fact, the personal representative is answerable to the Probate Division of the Circuit Court and must regularly report their actions.
Managing the decedent’s estate. Once the personal representative is appointed, they have the legal right to and duty to take possession of the decedent’s personal property. However, the personal representative can only take possession of real property if the court gives permission. The court will only give permission if it is necessary to preserve the property or to pay estate debt. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 473.123.
Inventory and appraise the assets. The personal representative is required to create an inventory of estate assets and file it with the court. The inventory must be completed within 30 days of appointment and must be filed with the Circuit Court. The property that must be listed in the inventory includes real property, furniture, household goods, clothing, investment accounts, bank accounts, written evidence of debt, insurance policies payable to the personal representative, and cash. The appraised value of each asset as of the date of the decedent’s death must be included along with any liens or encumbrances. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 473.233
Pay estate debts and expenses. The next major step in the administration process is for the personal representative to pay estate debts. However, the court must give the personal representative permission to do so. First, the personal representative is required to publish and mail notices to claimants. The notices must provide instructions on how to file a claim and the deadline for doing so. Claimants must file their claims within 6 months of when the first notice was published. Failure to timely file a claim will result in the claim being forever barred. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 473.360. If there is not enough money in the estate to pay all of the debts and expenses, the personal representative must pay debt and expenses based on a statutory order of priority with top priority going to payment of costs, expenses of administration, exempt property, family and homestead allowances, and funeral expenses.
Distribute estate assets. Before distributing assets, the personal representative must also seek court permission. The court will not grant permission until the 6-month claims period has ended. After that point, the personal representative can petition the court to allow asset distribution. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 473.617. The court will issue a final distribution plan which will be based on the terms of the decedent’s will and, in the absence of a will, Missouri’s law of intestate succession.
In addition to overseeing the routine administration activities, the court must also adjudicate disputes that develop during the process. Examples of reasons for disputes that lead to probate litigation include objections to probating the will, fiduciary disputes, disallowed creditor claims, and disputes over how to interpret terms of the will.