Under Utah law, before the property of a decedent can be passed on to relatives and others who are legally entitled to it, their estate must go through a legal proceeding. This is commonly referred to as “probate” or “administration.” The purpose is to ensure that the decedent’s affairs have been properly cared for and that title to their property is properly transferred.
The process begins by submitting a petition, the will (if there is one), and the death certificate with the District Court, as the District Court serves as the probate court in Utah. Typically, it is the person who wishes to serve as personal representative who initiates the probate proceeding and part of their duties and responsibilities is to manage the probate process.
Caring for a decedent’s unfinished business involves two main tasks: paying their creditors and distributing their property. In order to do these things, the personal representative must first identify estate assets and determine their value. Then they must notify creditors, giving them 120 days to file their claims. Note that filing a claim does not necessarily mean that it will be paid. The personal representative has a duty to closely review each claim and only pay those that are shown to be valid. In fact, they have a duty to defend the estate against unproven and frivolous claims.
In addition to paying the decedent’s creditors, the personal representative must also address other financial obligations of the estate such as expenses related to estate administration and federal and state taxes.
Ultimately, estate property will be distributed to beneficiaries as directed in the will or to the decedent’s next of kin as defined in Utah’s intestate succession rules. Utah Code Ann. § 75-2-101.
According to Utah’s intestate succession law, a decedent’s spouse and children are always first in line to inherit. So, if the decedent leaves a surviving spouse and no children, the surviving spouse is entitled to the entire estate. Similarly, if the decedent leaves children, but no spouse, the children will get everything. Things are less straightforward if the decedent leaves both a surviving spouse and children. Whether the children are entitled to inherit depends on whether the decedent’s children are also the children of the surviving spouse. If they are not, then the children area entitled to a share of the estate along with the spouse. If they are, they spouse inherits everything.
In the absence of a surviving spouse or descendants (children, grandchildren), the law directs that the next in line would be the decedent’s parents followed by their siblings. The provides an order for priority based on degree of relatedness. If it is unclear as to who is entitled to inherit, a hearing may be required during which claimants will be required to prove their relatedness.
While all involved in the administration process want it to end as quickly as possible, sometimes disagreements come up during the process that must be resolved before the process can move forward. Probate disputes can lead to litigation before a probate court judge. There are many types of probate ligation, including:
- Will contest
- Will construction
- Heirship claims
- Creditor claims
- Guardianship disputes
- Fiduciary duty breaches
- Failure to account
Probate litigation can only be initiated by someone who has legal standing. For example, for a will challenge, typically beneficiaries, heirs, and the personal representative would have standing.
Alternatives for Small Estates
A common question is whether it is possible to avoid the administration process, particularly of the estate is small. Afterall, the process can take months and can be costly. Further, there may be people who are depending on the property that is part of the estate.
Well, under Utah law, there are quicker, less expensive alternatives.
Affidavit. If an estate has property that worth no more than $100,000, anyone with a claim to estate property can file an affidavit of collection to request those assets. To qualify:
- A 30-day waiting period must have ended
- No personal representative has been appointed by the court
Utah Code Ann. § 75-3-1201
Summary administrative procedure. If the value of the estate is not more than the threshold established by the statute, the personal representative can immediately distribute assets without giving notice to creditors. Utah Code Ann. § 75-3-1203