In the state of Arizona, most probate cases are considered “informal.” With informal probate, the estate’s personal representative (also known as the executor) is authorized to probate the estate without court supervision. As long as nobody contests the will or objects to the personal representative’s actions, the court’s only involvement will be to open probate and close the estate when probate is finished.
Informal probate is significantly easier and faster than supervised probate, but it can still be an overwhelming task for the personal representative. For many people, getting started is the hardest part. To make the process a little easier for you, here is a step-by-step guide on how to start probate for an estate in Arizona.
1. Open the Decedent’s Last Will and Testament
Once the family has had sufficient time to grieve and mourn their loss, the party in possession of the decedent’s will should gather the family and read the will. It’s always a good idea to open the will with an attorney present. Be sure to keep the original document safe and don’t lose track of it, as the probate court will only accept an original will.
2. Determine Who Will be the Personal Representative
The personal representative (or executor) is the individual who will be tasked with managing the decedent’s estate throughout probate. The decedent’s will should nominate a personal representative and a successor executor who can serve as a backup.
If the will doesn’t name a personal representative, or if the decedent didn’t leave a will, then the family will need to come to a consensus on who is best suited for the position. Arizona law gives priority to the decedent’s spouse, adult children, parents, and siblings, but any qualified candidate can serve as a personal representative.
It’s important for the family to be in agreement on the personal representative, as a contested appointment may require supervised probate and could result in the court appointing a third-party special administrator. Once the family is in agreement, ask anyone who has a legal right to be a personal representative (notably spouses and adult children) to sign a waiver of appointment, and then deliver a signed copy of the waiver to all of the estate’s interested parties.
3. Compile a List of the Estate’s Interested Parties
According to Arizona law, the interested parties to an estate includes any beneficiary, spouse, child, devisee, heir, trustee, creditor, person holding a power of appointment, and person with a property right or claim. Interested parties may also include any individuals who have priority for appointment as personal representative, and other fiduciaries representing interested parties. For each interested party, list their full legal name, date of birth, address, and phone number.
4. Take an Inventory of the Decedent’s Assets
For liquid assets like bank and brokerage accounts, find the most recent account statements. For illiquid assets like real estate, vehicles, and valuable personal possessions (art, collectibles, jewelry), you’ll just need an approximate value for now. Do your best to determine the fair market value based on the price of comparable real estate, vehicles, and individual items.
5. Calculate the Decedent’s Liabilities
You should already have a list of the decedent’s known creditors from the list of interested parties that you completed earlier. Track down recent account statements and bills to calculate the value of the estate’s liabilities.
6. Determine if Probate is Necessary
Assets that have a designated beneficiary listed on the account can transfer to the beneficiary automatically upon the owner’s death, without going through probate. Prime examples of non-probate assets include accounts with a transfer-on-death or payable-on-death beneficiary, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, trusts, and real estate owned in joint tenancy.
To initiate the transfer for these assets, all you need to do is submit a copy of the owner’s death certificate to the financial institution holding the assets. If the decedent’s entire estate is comprised of non-probate assets, you might be able to skip probate altogether.
The state of Arizona also has a small estate exception that allows smaller estates to transfer individually-owned property without going through informal probate. In order to qualify, the decedent’s estate needs to have less than $100,000 in real estate, and less than $75,000 in personal property. If the decedent’s estate qualifies, all you have to do is fill out a small estate affidavit.
7. Seek a Waiver of Bond
As long as all of the estate’s interested parties are okay with the personal representative handling the estate without a bond, the interested parties can sign a waiver of bond for the personal representative. When the waiver is signed, send copies to all of the interested parties. If any of the interested parties refuse to sign a waiver of bond, you’ll need to obtain a bond before you can petition to open probate. The value of the bond will be dependent on the value of the estate’s assets.
8. Complete Required Training
The Arizona Supreme Court requires personal representatives who are not licensed fiduciaries to complete a court-approved training course. You’ll need to complete the training and receive a certificate of completion before you submit the petition to open probate.
9. Serve Notice of Application to Interested Parties
It may seem backwards to complete this step before you actually petition to open probate, but it’s important to notify all of the interested parties that you are applying to be the personal representative, and that the probate process is ready to begin.
You’ll need to deliver a copy of the notice of application to all of the known interested parties (either by mail or in person), and you’ll need to publish a post in the local newspaper to alert any unknown creditors of your application. You’ll ultimately need to publish three posts in the local newspaper (one a week for three weeks), but you only need to publish the first post before you apply for probate.
10. Apply to be the Personal Representative
When you’re ready to petition for informal probate, you’ll need to submit the following documents to the county probate court:
- Probate information cover sheet
- Informal checklist
- Application for appointment (signed and notarized, original plus copy)
- Original last will and testament
- Notice of application (original plus copy)
- Proof of mailing of notice of application (original plus copy)
- Declaration supporting publication (includes affidavit of publishing; original plus copy)
- Statement of informal appointment (original plus copy)
- Letters and acceptance of appointment (signed and notarized, original plus copy)
- Order to personal representative (signed original plus copy)
- Certificate of completion of training (original plus copy)
- Waiver of right to appointment and consent (signed original plus copy)
- Waiver of bond (signed original plus copy)
Do You Need Help with Probate Matters?
As you can see, AZ probate laws can be complex. It requires a number of steps and without the right approach, it’s easy to get lost in the details.