Mr. Morgan has given you the answer. Essentially, if assets become part of a deceased person's probate estate (which means by definition that they were owned by the decedent and did not transfer automatically to someone else upon his death by a right of survivorship or a beneficiary designation), then either (1) a Will has to be admitted to probate and an Executor appointed, if there is a Will, or (2) a probate estate has to be opened and an Administrator appointed, if there is no Will. This has to be done because otherwise there is no one with the legal authority to transfer the assets out of the decedent's probate estate to the heirs (if no Will) or beneficiaries (if there is a Will), to pay debts and taxes, file any final tax returns, or do anything else which needs to be done.
This answer is not intended to provide you with specific legal advice regarding your situation, or to create any attorney-client relationship. The intent is only to provide general information. You should be aware that you cannot rely on this answer to provide you with any protection against tax penalties. You should always consult your own attorney in order to obtain legal advice.
If a Will exists, you generally should probate it if significant assets pass into the estate, which it sounds like they do from your question. It does not matter how many beneficiaries there are. The Probate process proves the Will is valid and then ensures that assets are collected and creditors are notified and paid, assuming sufficient assets exist to pay them all, as well as handling administrative functions such as tax return filing requirements. Only after these matters are handled sufficiently do the beneficiaries get to benefit under the Will. If the sole beneficiary is the surviving spouse and no minor children exist, you can also consider the another option of the spouse applying for a Year's Support which can avoid some or all of the unsecured creditor claims, depending on the facts in the case. I strongly suggest that you seek competent legal counsel to help determine what steps should best be taken in your case.
You have two good answers.
The short version-probate is the legal process of getting assets out of a deceased persons name.
The court appointed PR can transfer assets to the beneficiary or sell and give beneficiary the cash proceeds after paying taxes and expenses.
The answer given does not imply that an attorney-client relationship has been established and your best course of action is to have legal representation in this matter.
Your first-responder, Mr. Morgan, is correct, of course. I am adding to his answer to place a different emphasis on the probabe process. While most heirs and beneficiaries focus directly on what is to be received, that is only part of the probate process. Probate in general resolves the financial affairs of the decedent. Property must be secured and taken into possession by the personal representative. Claims of creditors must be solicited, and the legitimacy of debts reviewed. How the assets of the estate satisfy the debts and expenses of the estate governs whether properties are liquidated or passed intact. Put another way, assets like homes and cars can be transferred to the beneficiary if there are other cash assets to satisfy the debts and expenses.
Best wishes for a favorable outcome, and please remember to designate a best answer.
This answer is offered as a public service for general information only and may not be relied upon as legal advice.
Mr. Morgan and Ms. Disalvo have given excellent answers. Let me stress that you want an attorney to advise you on the best process (such as years support if appropriate vs. probate). Bear in mind creditors and taxes have to be addressed, so paying those may force sale of some estate assets.
Certain procedures (such as years support by a surviving spouse) have time deadlines, so getting a lawyer quickly is important.
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