Following the loss of a loved one, we sometimes find comfort in things—possessions shared with or treasured by the person who passed. Dealing with these things may be part of the grieving process, but it is also a necessary part of wrapping up the decedent’s affairs. Legal proceedings in a probate court are often required. Understanding how Ohio probate works is critical for both the person handling the decedent’s estate and for the decedent’s heirs. Here, an experienced Ohio probate attorney gives an overview of how probate in Ohio works.
This blog is part of a series on how probate works in the tristate area that includes articles on what estate administration means generally as well as information on estate administration in West Virginia and probate in Kentucky.
The Basics of the Ohio Probate Process
When someone dies, the legal authority to transact business on the decedent’s behalf ceases. Probate is the formal process of identifying and authorizing someone to wind up all of the decedent's affairs. Whether or not the decedent left a will, probate is usually necessary to deal with identifying heirs and creditors, paying funeral costs and other debts of the decedent, filing a federal estate tax return when required, and distributing remaining asset to the rightful heirs.
Probating an estate in Ohio is a serious responsibility. Depending on what the decedent owned and owed at the time of death, probate may be a fairly simple process or a complicated one requiring much time and assistance from numerous professionals.
Because the person in charge of handling the decedent’s affairs can bear personal liability for failures in the probate process, including being named in a civil suit by the decedent’s heirs or creditors for breach of duty, everyone connected to a decedent’s estate should understand the Ohio probate process.
The Parties Involved in an Ohio Probate Case
The decedent’s will and state law determine the parties involved in an Ohio probate case. If the decedent left a valid will, that document often names the person to represent the estate and the heirs to receive under the will. In Ohio, that personal representative is called an executor if named in the will and an administrator if the decedent left no valid will or did not name an executor. Whether an executor or an administrator, the personal representative identifies and takes care of all of the decedent’s assets, called the estate, during the probate process. The personal representative must also ensure the following tasks are completed:
- Pay funeral expenses from the estate;
- Identify the decedent’s heirs;
- Identify the decedent’s creditors;
- Notify the heirs and creditors of the probate proceeding;
- Pay valid claims against the estate;
- File an estate tax return and pay any liability from the estate; and
- Distribute the remaining assets to the heirs as directed in the will or, if no valid will exists, pursuant to Ohio intestacy laws.
A decedent’s heirs may include anyone named in the will, whether family members or not. If the decedent did not leave a valid will, Ohio intestacy laws identify the heirs and their share of the estate.
Probate versus Non-Probate Assets
A decedent’s entire estate includes all assets owned at the time of death, but the probate estate may be smaller. The ownership of certain assets may pass to another person automatically upon decedent’s death. These are called non-probate assets.
The transfer of ownership of non-probate assets requires no assistance from the court because it arises from joint ownership with rights of survivorship or a beneficiary designation. The following types of assets may be titled jointly with rights of survivorship, with a beneficiary designation, or with a payable on death designation:
- Real property;
- Land and water vehicles;
- Bank accounts;
- Brokerage and other investment accounts;
- Retirement accounts; and
- Life insurance policies.
Because the transfer of ownership of non-probate assets occurs automatically, without the assistance of the court, non-probate assets need not go through probate, although they may be included for other purposes such as the filing of an estate tax return.
A decedent’s estate may include both probate and non-probate assets, but only the probate assets are included in the probate case for identification and distribution.
Opening a Probate Case in Ohio
An Ohio probate case can be opened in one of two ways. First, if the decedent’s will was filed with the probate court during the decedent’s lifetime, the court will deliver the will to the previously identified person after the decedent’s death. If the filed will has no designee, the court will publicly open the will during the month following the death and hold the same on file until offered by someone for probate.
If the decedent did not keep a will on file with the probate court, a loved one may open a probate case by presenting the will to the probate court in the county in which the decedent resided at the time of death.
If the decedent left no will, then a loved one may petition the court to open a probate case and for the appointment of an administrator.
What Happens during the Ohio Probate Process
The purpose of the probate case is to validate the will and oversee the winding up of the decedent’s estate—the payment of valid debts, the payment of estate taxes if required, and the distribution of remaining estate assets to the rightful heirs. Whether an executor or an administrator, the personal representative receives authority to transact these and other affairs on behalf of the estate only after the court has officially named the personal representative. To document this, the court issues letters testamentary to the personal representative pursuant to Ohio Revised Code § 2113.05.
As noted above, the personal representative must identify and give notice to the decedent’s heirs and creditors, identify and manage the decedent's assets, and pay valid claims against the estate. In many cases, the court monitors the management of the estate through hearings and by requiring the personal representative to file reports to the court, such as an accounting of estate assets or payments.
Some cases may qualify for a release from administration, which is a simplified method for probating an estate in Ohio. Under Ohio Revised Code § 2113.03, the following probate estates may qualify for a release from administration by filing an affidavit in the probate court:
- Probate estates valued at $100,000 or less and the decedent’s spouse inherits everything; and
- Probate estates valued at $35,000 or less.
Ohio Revised Code § 2113.31 allows for an even simpler process for probating an estate in Ohio when the probate estate is valued at the lesser of the funeral and burial costs or $5,000.
When You Need Professional Help in an Ohio Probate Case
Probating an estate requires knowledge of Ohio probate law, the state’s probate court procedures, accounting, and asset valuation at a minimum. Because most people do not possess all of these and the other necessary knowledge for probating an estate, personal representatives often engage professionals to handle some or all of these areas. For example, bank and financial accounts have an easily ascertainable value, but real estate and personal property may require valuation from a qualified appraiser. Similarly, navigating the state’s probate laws, procedures, and filings is second nature to an experienced Ohio probate attorney.
Whether you’ve been appointed as the executor or administrator of an estate or are heir to probate estate assets, your questions about probating an estate in Ohio are best answered by an experienced Ohio probate attorney like Anna M. Price at Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC. Anna dedicates her practice to estate planning and estate administration, serving clients knowledgeably and with compassion. To get your probate questions answered, schedule a consultation with Anna by calling (304) 523-2100 or completing the firm’s online contact form.