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Formal or Informal Probate? Which is Better?

Older, distinguished judge making his ruling in the courtroom

In Utah, as in many other states, there are two ways to administer the estate of a decedent in probate. In Utah these are called formal and informal probate. Other states may have different names. Georgia, for example, calls its two methods of probate solemn and common. What’s the difference and why choose one or the other?

In Utah, informal probate is the more common. It’s simpler, faster and generally less expensive. All that has to be done is to file an application for probate with the will. The application for probate names the proposed personal representative (also known as the executor) and lists the names and addresses of the heirs. Then the court gives notice of the application to the heirs, who have a period of time in which to object the the appointment of the personal representative. If there is no objection, the application is granted and the applicant is named as personal representative. Letters Testamentary are also issued by the court. This is a document that gives the personal representative the power to act on behalf of the estate, such as signing documents such as deeds or contracts to sell property, taking control of bank and financial accounts and doing everything necessary to administer the estate. That’s about the only involvement with the court system that there is in an informal probate.

A formal probate starts out much the same way with the appointment of the personal representative. However, after that much more is involved. Notices to creditors to file claims against the estate have to be given, either by mail or publication. There is a waiting period in which claims can be filed. The personal representative files periodic reports with the court of property she collects and claims she pays. When the probate is finally administered (meaning all property has been collected, all bills have been paid and all remaining property has been distributed to the heirs) there is a final accounting and the personal representative is discharged and the probate closed.

Why would anyone use formal probate? It’s longer, more complicated and more expensive. The reasons for using formal probate all have to do with the protection given the estate and personal representative by the court’s supervision. After notice to creditors is given, after the claim period has expired and after the estate is closed, any claims are cut off. Neither the estate nor the personal representative has any further liability for any debts unless gross malfeasance or fraud is shown. In informal probate, if a claim arises years later, the estate or personal representative could potentially be held liable.

One advantage, besides simplicity, that informal probate has over formal probate is that the probate is never closed. So if, years after the fact, some property is discovered, such as shares of stock or a forgotten life insurance policy, the appointed personal representative can deal with it without having to reopen the probate.

If you have any probate or other legal questions, please contact us.


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