A probate judge usually oversees issues related to the execution of the personal estate of a deceased person. When a person owns a significant amount of property and dies without a will, the probate judge may preside over resolving disputes among beneficiaries. Typically, the probate judge distributes assets in the estate based on laws governing probate issues. Within some jurisdictions, a probate judge may have other responsibilities unrelated to the administration of a will.
The circumstances surrounding the property of a deceased person usually dictate what a judge in probate court does during a hearing. Essentially, the personal estate of the deceased may fall into one of several different legal categories. The probate laws for a specific jurisdiction typically govern the resolution within each category.
When the person dies leaving assets testate — meaning that a will is in place — the will covers all assets and names a personal representative. If the person dies intestate, either no will exists or the will does not list all assets. A contested will usually indicates that beneficiaries have a dispute about some part of the will. If the will is uncontested, the beneficiaries agree to the provisions and have no conflict of interest.
Ideally, a person may die with a will that is easy for the probate judge to validate. With a legally binding document and absent a contested will by one or more beneficiaries, the process is usually simple. The judge may issue a decree, assets are distributed, and the case is closed.
Contested wills will likely lead to more responsibilities for the judge. Most probate judges may issue judgments if beneficiaries contest a will and are unable to reach an amicable agreement on their own. As part of resolving contested wills, the judge may also assign a representative for the estate. This person is usually responsible for distributing portions of the estate to beneficiaries.
When a person dies intestate without a valid will, the role of the judge may require more involvement based on applicable probate laws. The probate judge may oversee the process of identifying the assets, beneficiaries, and creditors of the deceased. Typically, the judge may have to appoint a personal representative to administer an orderly dissolution of the assets.
Usually, a contested or uncontested personal representative appointment also determines the extent of the judge’s involvement. With an uncontested appointment, the judge signs probate orders and the representative administers the estate. The contested appointment usually requires that the probate judge preside over the entire process of administering the will to ensure that the representative and beneficiaries follow legal orders.
Generally, the probate judge also presides over appeals if one or more beneficiaries contest the decision of the court. The judge may review the notice of appeal and interpret the laws related to the case. Consequently, the judge typically rules to either overturn or uphold the original ruling.