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What to Expect in a New Jersey Probate Proceeding

Let’s say you have been named the personal representative (also known as executor) in a relative’s or friend’s will, putting you in charge of handling their final affairs. This means going through probate — the process by which the will is validated and the estate administered. Having a basic knowledge of what to expect is essential to shouldering your responsibilities once the time comes.

Probate is a public court proceeding that can be quite involved. Here are the essential steps:

  • Initiating the case — You need to file a petition in the Surrogate’s Court of the county where the decedent was domiciled. There’s a 10-day waiting period after the death. With the petition you must file the original will, a death certificate and a request to be named the personal representative.
  • Receiving letters — If the will is admitted to probate, the court will issue “letters testamentary,: which formally grant you authority to act administratively on behalf of the estate.
  • Notifying heirs — Within 60 days of the will being admitted to probate, you must mail written notices to all beneficiaries named in the will and to all of the decedent’s heirs: even those not named in the will. This gives them the opportunity to be heard concerning their potential rights.
  • Organizing the estate — Assets that were owned by the decedent must be transferred into the estate and an accurate inventory of these items must be prepared and updated.
  • Paying debts and taxes — You’ll need to identify all creditors and prioritize their claims as provided by New Jersey law. It’s essential to determine any income tax, inheritance tax and estate tax liabilities and ensure they are paid. Final tax returns will need to be filed.
  • Distributing the assets — After the necessary payments have been made and any claims against the estate have been resolved, the assets can be distributed to the beneficiaries named in the will. You must keep detailed records of all transactions and receipts throughout this stage.

The foregoing sequence applies if the probate is uncontested. However, one or more beneficiaries or heirs might challenge the will. If so, the case moves to the Superior Court Chancery Division. If there are genuine issues of material fact, that court will hold a hearing and receive testimony and evidence. 

A will contest can greatly increase the duration and cost of a probate case. Whereas an uncontested probate typically takes nine to 12 months, a contested one can take years. A contested case will also involve higher legal fees and other professional expenses, which can deplete estate funds.

An experienced New Jersey probate attorney can be invaluable in advising you at each stage of probate, helping you fully discharge your duties, protect the interests of the estate and deal with legal issues. 

The Paton Law Firm LLC in Fair Lawn represents clients in Bergen County and throughout northern New Jersey in wills and probate matters. Call 201-470-4801 or contact me online for a free initial consultation.


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