The Probate Process (PR)

Updated Apr 5, 2024
Show Table of Contents Courthouse for estate probate

Probate is the court-supervised process of settling a person's affairs after his or her death.

When a person dies, his or her belongings and obligations are collectively known as his or her "estate".  Every estate must be "settled", meaning obligations resolved and belongings distributed to the rightful heirs – and most PR estates should go through some form of probate.

Probate typically takes more than a year (sometimes multiple years), and involves a number of legal steps. However, certain types of assets automatically bypass probate, and most states have laws that allow qualified estates (usually small) to bypass probate entirely.

Types of Probate in PR

The following variants of probate are supported in PR:

  • None — If the estate qualifies, you may be able to settle the estate without official probate (see Small Estate Probate)
  • Formal — Lengthier and more expensive, but can resolve disputes. Often benefits from the assistance of a lawyer

Is Probate Necessary?

Probate laws and rules are determined at the state level; there are no federal requirements. In most cases, if the estate contains only assets that do not require probate (see Probate Exclusions below) or the remaining estate is considered "small", then full probate is not required (although some still choose to go through probate – see Benefits below).

See Settling Small PR Estates for state-specific rules about bypassing or minimizing probate.

Is a Lawyer Required?

PR does not require the executor to retain a lawyer, although many do. For more information, see Do I Need a Lawyer?

Note that even if the executor does hire a lawyer, the executor will still personally have a lot to do, and EstateExec will still be very useful in terms of tracking assets, expenses, and more.

Probate Process

Probate details vary significantly by state, and sometimes even by county, but there are many common elements. While it is sometimes possible to settle an estate without going through probate, many of the basic concepts are the same whether or not the court is involved:

Executor probate infographic

If you are using the EstateExec App, it will provide you step-by-step instructions for your particular PR estate, but overall probate has the following basic components:

Executor Appointment: The first step in the probate process is to get the court to formally appoint you as executor (or personal representative, or administrator, or whatever local term is used). This step requires filing documents with the court, notifying potentially interested parties, and obtaining a probate bond if required. See Becoming an Executor for details, and PR Probate Forms.

Estate Inventory: You will need to provide the court with an official inventory of the estate (all assets and debts). Often, an initial version of this inventory will be required along with the probate application, but this inventory can be updated later if additional information comes to light. See Taking Inventory.

In Each State: Personal property (such as a bank account or coin collection) is generally probated in the decedent's legal state of residence, but real estate is probated where the property is physically located. Certain classes of personal property, such as vehicles that are registered and titled out of state, may also need to be probated in the jurisdiction where the property is domiciled. If there are multiple real properties in a single state, you can probate them all in the same probate court, but if the decedent owned property in multiple states or internationally, you'll have to go through the settlement process in multiple locations (see Ancillary Probate).

Family Entitlements: A surviving spouse and other dependants often have rights to the estate that can supersede the terms of a will or even legitimate claims of creditors. In some cases you are legally obligated to inform the spouse of those rights, and in you may be required to wait a certain amount of time to let the spouse decide whether to make any claims. See PR Family Entitlements.

Creditor Notification: It is best practice to notify creditors of the probate process so they know to submit claims, and many states require such notification for estates within their jurisdictions. See Finding Debts in PR.

Debt Resolution: Once you understand the overall financial situation of the estate, you must attempt to resolve all debts. See Resolving Debts.

Tax Payments & Discharge of Personal Liability: You are responsible for filing a tax return for the decedent's final year of life, and for the estate. It is best practice to then apply for a Discharge of Personal Liability (IRS Form 5495) before distributing assets to heirs. See Paying Taxes.

Asset Distribution: Once you have resolved all debts and paid any taxes due, you can distribute the remaining assets to the rightful heirs. See Making Distributions.

Final Accounting & Probate Closing: In general, the probate process concludes with submission and court approval of a "Final Accounting" and a "Probate Closing Statement".

Example first page of Final Accounting report for estate probate settlement

Probate Exclusions

Even if an estate undergoes probate, a number of asset types are generally exempt from the probate process:

  • Assets with named beneficiaries, such as
    • IRAs, 401Ks, and so forth
    • Life insurance policies (unless the beneficiary is the estate itself)
    • Funds held in Payable-On-Death (POD) account
    • Securities registered in a transfer-on-death (TOD) form
    • Real estate subject to a transfer-on-death (TOD) deed
    • Vehicles registered in a transfer-on-death (TOD) form
  • Jointly owned assets, such as
    • Property held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship
    • Community property with right of survivorship
    • US Savings bond with multiple owners
  • Sundry low-value household items
  • Assets held in a trust

Court Location

It can sometimes be difficult to determine which court to use for a given estate. The particular type of court that oversees the probate process varies by state: it may be a dedicated probate court, a circuit court, a superior court, a general county court, or something else.

In Puerto Rico, the regional Tribunal de Primera Instancia handles wills and estate matters.

As noted above, remember that real property must be probated in the state in which it is physically located, so you may need to go through probate in multiple states.


It will likely only cost a few hundred dollars for probate court costs ... and thousands of dollars to pay lawyers, appraisers, and possibly a tax accountant. The average estate spends $12,400 on lawyers and accountants (see General Statistics), and since lawyers and accountants typically charge by the hour, having your information well-organized via EstateExec will likely pay for the EstateExec licensing fee many times over.


If probate is required, one clear benefit of probate is that you will be following the law. However, even if probate is not required, it can help shield you from potentially unhappy heirs, and it will also get you a document commonly known as your "Letters" (sometimes known as Letters of Authority, Letters of Administration, Letters Testamentary, etc.), which will make it easier for you to prove your authority when dealing with third parties such as banks.

EstateExec Service

EstateExec has arranged for experienced attorneys to file probate cases for EstateExec customers in select locations; availability and cost depend on location of the estate. See Probate Service for details on this optional service; you are also welcome to use your own attorney, or none at all.

Additional Information

See EstateExec Reference: Manage Probate for instructions using EstateExec during the probate process, including identifying assets subject to probate, generating Inventory Reports, and more.

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