In Ohio probate is a court-supervised legal process that is generally required to settle the estate of a decedent. The Probate Court in the county in which the decedent resided at the time of their death has jurisdiction over the probate case. The probate court is a division of the Court of Common Pleas. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2101.24. For example, if the decedent was a resident of Cleveland, the probate case must be filed in Cuyahoga County. The purpose of probate is to make sure the deceased person’s debts and taxes are paid and that assets are transferred to the people who are legally entitled to inherit them based on the decedent’s will or Ohio law.
Whether the decedent passed away leaving a will or not leaving the will, the estate must go through an administration process commonly referred to as probate or estate administration. The first step in the process is the filing of a petition along with a copy of the will, if any. If the Probate Court judge determines that the will is valid, they will admit it to probate and appoint the executor- also referred to as the personal representative. From there it is the job of the executor to manage the activities necessary to settle the decedent’s estate and transfer property to the decedent’s beneficiaries.
While transferring assets to beneficiaries is an important goal of the administration process, it is not the only goal. An important part of the process is paying any debt that the decedent left behind and settling outstanding claims against the estate. In fact, the law requires that the executor pay debts and expenses and address claims before distributing assets. Ohio Rev. Code §2117
In Ohio, administration typically takes about 6 months. However, there are simplified processes that certain smaller estates can use that significantly reduce the administration time. An estate qualifies for a simplified process if it meets one of the following requirements:
- Summary release from administration. Anyone other than the surviving spouse can apply for a summary release from administration if the value of the estate is less than $5000 and the applicant paid the funeral and burial expenses or is obligated to pay them. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2113.031.
- Release from administration. A beneficiary or heir can apply for release of administration if the value of the estate is $35,000 or less. The applicant must give notice to the surviving spouse, if any, and to the heirs. They must also publish a notice. The applicant will then be required to distribute the assets according to the terms of the will or Ohio law. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2113.03.
- Surviving spouse release from administration. The surviving spouse can apply for a release from administration if the value of the state is $100,000 or less and the surviving spouse is the sole beneficiary or heir. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2113.03.
When those involved in the probate process disagree and cannot resolve their disagreements, the result is probate litigation. Issues that lead to litigation often center on questions related to the validity of the will. Claims of duress, undue influence, lack of capacity, fraud, or improper execution can lead to a will contest. When objections to a will are raised by a beneficiary or heir, the Probate Court must review the evidence and decide whether the will should be probated. The purpose of the will is for the testator to leave instructions about how they want their estate to be distributed. If the will does not reflect a testator’s true wishes because of an illegality in making the will, the court will invalidate it.
Probate litigation can also be based on a disagreement as to how to interpret the language in the will. If the will is written such that the plain language is open to different inconsistent interpretation, the court may be asked to step in and hold a special hearing called a will construction to determine the testator’s wishes. If there are questions about how the executor has been performing their job, litigation might be initiated based on claims of breach of fiduciary duties.
Probate litigation is sometimes unavoidable and necessary to ensure the integrity of the proceeding, whatever its reason it can have a significant impact on the administration process. It can result in delays as well as significant expenses charged to the estate.
While the term “probate” is strongly associated with the process of authenticating a will and settling an estate based on the terms of a will, intestate estates also must go through an administration process. If someone passes away without a will, they would have died intestate.
In the absence of a will, the Probate Court will appoint an administrator and the decedent’s estate will be distributed based on Ohio’s intestate succession laws. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2105.01. This means that the property will be distributed to relatives based on a priority set out in the statute. The surviving spouse, if any, is the primary heir and will inherit everything unless the decedent has children who are not the children of the surviving spouse. In the absence of a surviving spouse, the assets go to other blood relatives who are entitled to inherit based on the order of priority stated in the statute.
While this is not a common occurrence, the situation can become complicated where the decedent has no close relatives and someone comes forward claiming to be a “long lost relative” and asserting a right to inherit. Under these circumstances the Probate Court would require the claimant to prove that they are a legitimate heir through a kinship hearing.