Welcome to CPA at Law, helping individuals and small businesses plan for the future and keep what they have.

This is the personal blog of Sterling Olander, a Certified Public Accountant and Utah-licensed attorney. For over thirteen years, I have assisted clients with estate planning and administration, tax mitigation, tax controversies, small business planning, asset protection, and nonprofit law.

I write about any legal, tax, or technological information that I find interesting or useful in serving my clients. All ideas expressed herein are my own and don't constitute legal or tax advice.

Introduction to Probate Proceedings

One of the primary purposes of the probate process is to provide an efficient system for liquidating the estate of a decedent and making distributions to his or her successors in interest. When someone passes away with assets titled in their name, a system must be in place to deal with those assets and transfer them to the proper party. State courts oversee the probate process and have jurisdiction over (1) the estates of decedents who were domiciled in that state at death and (2) property located in that state belonging to decedents who were domiciled elsewhere. Venue for a probate proceeding is in the county where the decedent was domiciled at death or, if they lived elsewhere at death, in any county where property of the decedent was located.

If a decedent owned property in a state other than the one where the probate case is opened, an "ancillary" probate proceeding may be commenced in the other state. The personal representative accomplishes this by filing in the court of the ancillary jurisdiction authenticated copies of his or her appointment order or other certification of authority.

All property of a decedent devolves to persons named in their last will or, if there is none, to the decedent's heirs at law. In order "to be effective to prove the transfer of any property or to nominate a personal representative, a will must be declared to be valid" by a court. Thus, contrary to popular belief, a will does not avoid probate, it merely provides instructions to the probate court. Regardless of whether the decedent left a will or not, certain probate property can be distributed without a probate proceeding pursuant to a small estate affidavit.

Probate proceedings in Utah can be formal or informal. The key distinction in the commencement of a formal proceeding is that a court hearing is required before a court will appoint a personal representative. While no hearing is required to commence an informal proceeding (making it less costly and faster at the outset) the downside of informally probating a will is that any heir or devisee, even if they didn't object to the informal probate of the will, can subsequently petition the court to set aside the informal probate of the will.

In summary, the four primary types of probate proceedings are (1) informal probate in intestacy (no will), (2) informal probate of a will, (3) formal probate in intestacy, and (4) formal probate of a will. If all heirs will affirmatively agree on the key aspects of the probate proceeding and there is no will, informal probate will likely suffice. If such agreement cannot be obtained and there is a will, formal proceedings should be considered.