A probate court is a court of limited jurisdiction that deals with matters related to the death of a person. It is responsible for overseeing the distribution of a deceased person's assets according to their will, or if they die without a will, directing the distribution of their assets. When a person dies, who inherits depends on whether there is a will and who the living relatives are and their relationship to the deceased. If there is a will, it must be filed with the Surrogacy Court and admitted (approved) for legalization.
This process is known as probate, and involves proving that the will is valid (legally acceptable). The Surrogacy Court oversees this process, and once they are satisfied that the will is legally acceptable, the executor named in the will is appointed to deliver the inheritance (everything of value) that belonged to the person who died and fulfill their wishes. The living trust is often marketed as a way to avoid probate after death. However, many types of property routinely go outside the probate process, even without the cost of establishing a living trust.
These include income from life insurance or retirement plans, which are transferred to a beneficiary designated by designation rather than in accordance with their will, and real estate, banking, or brokerage accounts held jointly with survivor rights. Today, at least in Maryland and Pennsylvania, probate courts are still called orphan courts for historical reasons. They hear matters related to deceased estate wills that are challenged and oversee probate that is judicially proven. Because succession can rarely be completely avoided, it is essential to have a basic understanding of probate law.
If this is something you don't want to go through alone, consider getting help from experts in this field. The first step is for the executor or a close relative to file a petition with the court and initiate the probate process. This involves filing the original will and a certified death certificate, along with a form called a petition for probate and other supporting documents in the Surrogate Court in the county where the person who died lived and had their residence. At a probate court hearing, the judge will list the responsibilities of the executor of the will, including contacting beneficiaries, creditors, evaluating their assets, and paying creditors and outstanding taxes.
If the decedent was in debt, this process can also give surviving family members peace of mind by resolving creditors' claims sooner rather than later. If someone dies without a will, then their property is distributed to their next of kin as determined by state probate law. Some states don't call it probate court but instead refer to it as substitute court, orphan's court or chancellery court. Delaware Chancellery Court handles probate matters including estate, real property rights and mental health.