The Consequences of Not Probating a Will

  • Clifford M. Cohen,
  •   Estate Planning FAQ
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Senior man examining last will and testamentLet’s start with some context. First, as we have noted in previous blog posts, probate is a court-supervised process whereby an individual’s debts are paid and the remaining assets are distributed to beneficiaries after the individual in question passes away. (The person who has died is known as the decedent.) Second, probate is not required for all estates. For example, if the decedent had a living trust, his or her estate may not have to go through probate. That said, a person in possession of a decedent’s signed will must file it promptly with the court of the county in which the decedent resided. Failure to do so can have serious consequences.

Consider what could happen if the decedent’s estate had debts and assets but the decedent’s will was not filed or probated. Since probate involves the settlement of the decedent’s debts, how would they be paid? Creditors could continue to pursue claims, debts could continue to accrue, penalties and late fees could accumulate, and lawsuits could eventually be filed. Similarly, since probate also involves the retitling and distribution of assets, how would beneficiaries receive their inheritances? Short answer: The decedent’s assets would not be legally transferred to heirs. In both cases, the estate would likely have ongoing expenses, such as insurance premiums and property taxes, which would go unpaid unless someone covered them personally.

In addition, the personal representative (the individual tasked with settling the estate through probate) could be held financially liable for excess expenses incurred by the estate or heirs if the will is not filed. If the personal representative didn’t file the will for reasons of personal gain, he or she could be held criminally liable.

The bottom line is this: If you have been named as a decedent’s personal representative, or even if you are simply in possession of the decedent’s signed will, file the will with the court. For experienced legal counsel on all aspects of Maryland probate and estate settlement, we invite you to call the Law Offices of Clifford M. Cohen at (202) 895-2799 to schedule a consultation. We can meet in-person at our office or virtually via Zoom and other platforms.