While the process can vary from state to state and is often subject to outside factors that can certainly change it, the list below represents a VERY simplified step-by-step description of the process:
An original (signed and executed) copy of the will is delivered to the local probate court or whatever court supervises probates in that locale.
A notice of the Petition for Probate is published in a local newspaper. This is usually a requirement prior to the formal appointment and/or certification of the personal representative (executor / executrix) who was named in the will, assuming a will exists (legally referred to as “testate”), or the court-appointed administrator if there is no will (referred to as “intestate”).
After the certification or appointment of the personal representative has been made official, they then file their formal petition with the court to probate the estate.
Following that step and generally for a legally specified period of time (four months is typical) from the date of the public notification of the petition for probate, creditors against the estate are allowed to file their claims. This includes any previously unpaid debts, other liens or judgments, debts resulting from medical care, funeral expenses, outstanding taxes, and other encumbrances. During this same period, the personal representative will be working to identify, gather and secure the assets of the estate in such a manner as to be able to ultimately distribute them in accordance with the will or court directives.
To accomplish this, the personal representative will also need to locate and access all bank and other types of security accounts; determine any of the remaining debts owed by the decedent that require settlement; determine any real property(s) owned by the decedent and secure the titles to these and any other assets that will ultimately need to be disposed of.
It’s also the responsibility of the personal representative to maintain these assets safely, properly and in good condition during their period of stewardship as well as collecting any income (rents, residuals, interest payments, etc.) that are due to the Estate. To do so, the representative must be aware of and maintain proper insurance coverage; protecting the assets from theft or damage, etc.
The personal representative may also (if permitted or desired) liquidate some of the hard assets such as cars, real estate, etc. This is often done to provide the cash required to compensate creditors. When the formal claims period has expired and all assets have been collected; property that needed to be sold has been sold; and assuming no problems have arisen such as a contesting of the will by any of the heirs or other contested claims against the estate, the personal representative will usually file their final petition with the probate court to allow a complete distribution of all remaining assets to the heirs and beneficiaries.
This final petition includes a detailed accounting to the court explaining all of the expenses incurred, funds and assets received and disbursed, how any assets were invested or otherwise used, and the proposed final plan for final asset distribution. Assuming the court approves this petition, the personal representative then distributes the assets as instructed in the will and detailed by the approved petition, and/or as required by law or the courts if there was no will.