What Does a Probate Court Do?

Andrew Schlegel Estate Planning, Probate

During a will probate or estate administration, the Probate Court plays a vital but often unseen role. While most probates and administrations can be accomplished without any formal appearance in a court, many filings will be made that will be reviewed and must be approved by the Probate Court. Because a Personal Representative may never actually step foot into the courthouse, it is sometimes confusing what the role of the Probate Court is.

In most Oregon Counties, the Probate Court is a division of the County Circuit Court. The Probate Court has the same general legal and equitable authority as the Circuit Court, and can issue its own orders, judgments, declarations and can even hold parties in contempt of court to carry out its determinations. The powers of the Probate Court are found in Oregon Revised Statutes §§ 111.055 – 111.105. The findings of the Probate Court can be appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals in the same manner as any other case before the Circuit Court.

Among the Probate Court’s responsibilities and powers are:

  1. Appointment of Personal Representatives:  Before a person can become the Personal Representative of an estate, the Court must approve them as Personal Representative. The court usually gives preference to the person nominated as Personal Representative in a decedent’s will. If there is no will, the court will usually appoint a close relative to administer the estate.
  2. Probate and Contest of Wills:  The Probate Court only admits a will to probate if it receives certain assurance that the will is valid. Sometimes there are challenges to the validity of a will, or multiple wills that parties claim are the “true will.” In such a situation, the Probate Court decides which will is valid and should be administered.  Similarly, when there are claims of undue influence or incapacity of the testator, the Probate Court determines whether undue influence or incapacity existed.
  3. Determination of Heirship:  When there is no will to probate, the Court settles all disputes as to who are the heirs of a decedent, according to the Oregon laws of intestacy.
  4. Administration, Settlement and Distribution:  The Probate Court oversees all aspects of administration of an estate. In fact, very few distributions can/should be made without the approval of the Probate Court.  As with other probate disputes, the Probate Court is the final decision maker when problems arise.
  5. Construction of Wills:  If there is confusion as to what a will actually says, the Probate Court will listen to the arguments of the parties and determine the correct way to interpret the will.
  6. Settlement of Creditor Disputes:  The Probate Court determines what rights creditors, or claimed creditors, of the decedent have in the estate. If a creditor makes a claim that the Personal Representative does not think is valid, the Probate Court makes the final determination as to the claim’s validity.
  7. Other Duties:  The Probate Court also supervises Guardianships and Conservatorships, can appoint successor trustees to trusts, and supervises all court appointed Personal Representatives, Guardians and Conservators.

So while an actual appearance in court may not be part of every probate, the Probate Court plays an important role in the entire process. From the initial filing through the final discharge of the Personal Representative, the Probate Court has the final say on how an estate is administered.