What Does Probate Mean?

When you hear the word “probate” you might feel a bit apprehensive. After all, there’s plenty of horror stories about people whose assets were tied up for years in probate (a recent public example is Prince’s estate, which is still being argued over). True, it can happen, but let’s discuss what probate means, and what it could mean for your estate in the future.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives this definition:

Probate is the action or process of proving that a document registered as a last will and testament of a deceased person is genuine. This is proven by state requirements for signatures, witnesses and/or notaries and an inventory of the deceased person’s property.

In other words, probate is the process the legal system of your state uses to enforce what has been written in your will when you die.

The process looks different from state to state, but basically, probate requires your personal representative (a person of your choosing whom you name in your will) to:

  • Have your property appraised
  • Use the money from your estate to pay your debts and/or taxes
  • Distribute your remaining assets according to what is written in your will

If there is no will, then your assets will be distributed according to your state law. Pretty straightforward, right?

Most of the time the probate process only becomes a real issue if the deceased person did not have the correct legal documents clearly in place to distribute their possessions and assets.

[Related: What Happens If You Die Without a Will?]


Does Probate Apply Even if You Have a Small Estate?

But, what does probate mean for you if you don’t have a big estate? Does it even apply to you? In Virginia, going through the probate process isn’t necessary unless the estate is worth $50,000 or less. However, most people own more than $50,000 between their possessions and their actual money.

Count up the items you own: your house, car, bank accounts, retirement accounts, belongings, jewelry, etc. They all hold value, and when combined, they likely add up to more than $50,000. This means that even if you have a relatively small estate, your will still needs to go through the probate process to be verified. But if the paperwork is in order, the process should not present a concern.

Choose an Estate Planning Attorney to Help You Plan

Most peoples’ estates will have to go through probate, and it can get complicated depending upon your assets. It’s important to use an estate planning attorney to determine what probate means for you, your estate, and your loved ones.

Find an estate attorney you trust and who is licensed in your state of residence to help you create a plan that makes sense for your specific situation. There are several different ways you can set up your estate plan to navigate probate or to avoid it completely, and it’s best to explore your options with a professional.

[Related: 6 Tips for Choosing the Right Estate Planning Attorney]

Our Process

If you live in Virginia or West Virginia, we would love to help you create a plan for probate. After you schedule your free consultation, we will:

  1. Sit down with you to evaluate your assets
  2. Explain your options for navigating probate depending on your individual life
  3. Give you a recommendation for which option would be best for your relationships and assets
  4. Help you create a plan that reflects whichever option you choose
  5. Draft the legal documents you need to implement that plan

Probate doesn’t have to be a scary, uncertain, or burdensome issue in the future. We help family after family make things easy for their loved ones at their passing by creating the right plan, and we’d love to help yours too. Schedule your free consultation by clicking here.


Joshua E. Hummer, Esq. is a licensed attorney who has been admitted in both Virginia and West Virginia. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and has been practicing for over 15 years. While experienced in many parts of the law, Josh specializes in estate planning, estate administration, and elder law.