As a Houston probate lawyer, I often get asked the question, “what is probate?” Unless you have lost a friend or relative who lives in Texas, you likely are unfamiliar with how the process works or what needs to be done when someone dies. While the probate process is relatively simple for those who are experienced Texas probate lawyers, it can seem overwhelming for those who are new to it.
Most probate proceedings and estate administrations are supervised by a court to some degree. The judge is typically either a probate court judge (in larger counties such as Harris County) or a judge in a County Court at Law (in smaller counties such as Montgomery County and Fort Bend County). In either event, the Texas Estates Code provides the rules for administering the estate of a decedent. For smaller estates and estates that are not complicated, the estate administration process may only take a few months to complete. In larger estates or estates that have complicated assets such as family business interests, the process can take much longer, sometimes even years, to complete.
If the decedent died with a valid last will and testament, the will often provides many of the details used to govern the estate administration process, such as listing the powers of the executor (the person who is responsible for administering the estate under Texas law). For those who die without a will in Texas (known as dying “intestate”), the Texas Estates Code governs the executor’s powers, although in some circumstances the beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate can provide for an independent administration, which gives the executor broad powers and discretion in dealing with the estate.
Family dynamics can also play a role in the level of complexity of the Texas probate process. In a family where the decedent had only one spouse during his or her lifetime and no children from any other relationships, the process tends to be less complicated, since there tend to not be too many competing interests regarding the estate. However, in a blended family or a family which has a long history of discord, the process can turn litigious and complicated in a hurry. In these situations, potential beneficiaries of the estate often argue over how the estate should be distributed. This is where an experienced Houston probate attorney can be invaluable in guiding the parties through the process with the least possible amount of discord and expense.
While the Texas probate process can seem daunting to those who have never had to deal with it personally, a good probate lawyer should be able to help you manage the process.