Locate the deceased's last will and testament

Settle the Estate

The deceased’s Last Will and Testament, also known as a Will, is a legal document that determines how the deceased’s Assets should be distributed to their Heirs and Beneficiaries.

If the deceased did not have a will at the time of their death, their assets will be distributed according to state laws during Probate, the legal process for identifying and distributing the assets of a deceased person as well as paying any of their debts.

Therefore, you will need to locate the deceased’s will to determine how probate will be conducted.

AutumnIcons_Providers.svgProviders Settling an Estate can be a complicated legal procedure. If you need help navigating the process, speak with a Probate Attorney. Find lawyers near you in the links below.

For more information about what needs to be reviewed in a Will, see the "Review last will and testament" Task in the next Chapter of the Guide.

Helpful Tips


A Will, also known as a Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that determines who will receive a deceased person's assets.

Wills also name an Executor, Administrator, or personal representative who is responsible for following the directives of the will.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know To be valid, a will must follow certain guidelines outlined by the laws of the state where the deceased lived. For example, some states require that a will is witnessed by at least two neutral parties (who aren’t listed in the will), while some states only require that a notary witness the signing of the will.

During probate, the Probate Court in the state where the deceased lived (also called orphans' or surrogate’s court) will ensure that the Will was properly created, and then follow its directives. As such, the will guides the probate process.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If the deceased did not have a Will, then state laws will guide the probate process and probate court will dictate how assets are distributed.

For example, state law might say that John Doe’s wife is entitled to 50% of his estate, and his children are entitled to the other 50%. However, if John Doe has a will, he can stipulate how he wants his estate to be divided, and he does not have to follow state law.

If he wants to leave 75% of his estate to his wife and 25% to his brother, he can do so by leaving explicit instructions in his Will. In this case, local probate court must follow the wishes outlined in his Will instead of following state laws.

For this reason, it is important to review the deceased’s Will before starting the probate process.


Assets should not be given to the individuals named in the deceased’s Will until the legal probate process has started and debts of the estate have been paid.

State law requires that debts be paid before any assets are given to Beneficiaries, so it's important to ensure that the estate can pay its debt without having to sell its assets.

This means Executors or Administrators should not give any of the estate’s assets to Beneficiaries right away.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More For more information about distribute assets to heirs and beneficiaries, see the "Make distributions to heirs and beneficiaries" Chapter.


When the deceased's will does not specify what assets go to specific individuals, they will be divided among the deceased’s living heirs based upon the laws of the state where the deceased lived.

These laws, known as Intestacy Succession, will not only identify who is eligible to receive assets, but what share of the assets too.

For example, let’s say Jane Doe passes away with a will that does not name specific individuals but is survived by a husband and two adult children.

Based on the laws of the state where Jane lived, her husband is entitled to 50% of her estate and her children are entitled to the other 50%. Because Jane has two children, they would each be entitled to 25% of her estate.

If all the bills of Jane’s estate have been paid and there is $100,000 in assets remaining, Jane’s husband would be entitled to $50,000 and each child would be entitled to $25,000.


When looking for the deceased’s will, you might discover that they had a Living Trust.

A living trust, also known as a revocable living trust (RLT), is a legal document that identifies assets owned by the trust, and determines how one’s assets will be handled when they die.

If the deceased had a living trust, and you are an immediate relative, you should review the trust document to see if you are listed as a Successor Trustee.

If you are, then you should immediately begin paying any bills associated with the assets owned by the trust because assets owned by the trust do not go through probate.

AutumnIcons_Providers.svgProviders Review the document and contact an Estate Attorney, or Probate Attorney, if you have any questions about your responsibilities as a successor trustee. Find lawyers near you at the links below.

Personal Considerations


Did the deceased have a Will?


Before beginning the probate process, review the Will to know how to legally proceed. It will help organize the steps of this process.

If it does not name beneficiaries to receive assets, it should identify at least one individual as an Executor or personal representative.

This person is in charge of following the directives contained in the Will, opening an estate with the probate court in the county and state where the deceased lived, and making sure all of the estate's bills or debts are paid.

Follow the rest of the steps in this Chapter of the Guide before beginning the probate process.


Their estate will be settled exclusively according to state probate laws. These laws will dictate

  • The estate administration process
  • How debts will need to be paid
  • How estate assets are distributed

Without a Will, the deceased will have also not named an Executor, which means that no one is in charge of settling their estate.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant This means that when it's time to begin the probate process, a Surviving Family member will need to contact the Probate Court (sometimes called orphans’ court or surrogate's court) in the county where the deceased lived to find out who will be appointed Administrator of the estate.

Usually, the appointed administrator is an immediate relative or beneficiary of the deceased. Immediate relatives include:

  • The surviving spouse of the deceased
  • Surviving parents of the deceased
  • Children of the deceased
  • The closest living relative of the deceased

The administrator will be responsible for taking care of the estate, paying debts (out of estate funds), and giving estate assets to the people who are allowed to have them.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More For more information about starting the probate process, see the “Start the Probate Process” Chapter of the Guide.


If the deceased had a will:

Before beginning the probate process, review the Will to know how to legally proceed. It will help organize the steps of this process.

If it does not name beneficiaries to receive assets, it should identify at least one individual as an Executor or personal representative.

This person is in charge of following the directives contained in the Will, opening an estate with the probate court in the county and state where the deceased lived, and making sure all of the estate's bills or debts are paid.

Follow the rest of the steps in this Chapter of the Guide before beginning the probate process.

If the deceased did not have a will:

Their estate will be settled exclusively according to state probate laws. These laws will dictate

  • The estate administration process
  • How debts will need to be paid
  • How estate assets are distributed

Without a Will, the deceased will have also not named an Executor, which means that no one is in charge of settling their estate.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant This means that when it's time to begin the probate process, a Surviving Family member will need to contact the Probate Court (sometimes called orphans’ court or surrogate's court) in the county where the deceased lived to find out who will be appointed Administrator of the estate.

Usually, the appointed administrator is an immediate relative or beneficiary of the deceased. Immediate relatives include:

  • The surviving spouse of the deceased
  • Surviving parents of the deceased
  • Children of the deceased
  • The closest living relative of the deceased

The administrator will be responsible for taking care of the estate, paying debts (out of estate funds), and giving estate assets to the people who are allowed to have them.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More For more information about starting the probate process, see the “Start the Probate Process” Chapter of the Guide.


Does the will name an executor?


This person will be in charge of taking care of the estate, also known as Administering the Estate. They will pay the deceased's debt from the estate's, and give Assets to people who are allowed to have them.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If they aren't already aware, then the Executor should be notified by an immediate family member of the deceased that they have been appointed to administer the the deceased’s estate.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More For more information about the important responsibilities of the executor, see the "Identify the Executor" Task of the next Chapter.


The Probate Court in the county and state where the deceased lived will need to appoint someone to Administer the Estate.

Usually, this appointed Administrator is an immediate relative or beneficiary of the deceased. Immediate relatives include:

  • The surviving spouse of the deceased
  • Surviving parents of the deceased
  • Children of the deceased
  • The closest living relative of the deceased

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant When it's time to begin the probate process, a Surviving Family member will need to contact the Probate Court (sometimes called orphans’ court or surrogate's court) in the county where the deceased lived to find out who will be appointed Administrator of the estate.

The administrator will be responsible for taking care of the estate, paying debts (out of estate funds), and giving estate assets to the people who are allowed to have them.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More For more information about starting the probate process, see the “Start the Probate Process” Chapter of the Guide.


If the will names an executor of the estate:

This person will be in charge of taking care of the estate, also known as Administering the Estate. They will pay the deceased's debt from the estate's, and give Assets to people who are allowed to have them.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If they aren't already aware, then the Executor should be notified by an immediate family member of the deceased that they have been appointed to administer the the deceased’s estate.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More For more information about the important responsibilities of the executor, see the "Identify the Executor" Task of the next Chapter.

If the will does not name an executor of the estate:

The Probate Court in the county and state where the deceased lived will need to appoint someone to Administer the Estate.

Usually, this appointed Administrator is an immediate relative or beneficiary of the deceased. Immediate relatives include:

  • The surviving spouse of the deceased
  • Surviving parents of the deceased
  • Children of the deceased
  • The closest living relative of the deceased

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant When it's time to begin the probate process, a Surviving Family member will need to contact the Probate Court (sometimes called orphans’ court or surrogate's court) in the county where the deceased lived to find out who will be appointed Administrator of the estate.

The administrator will be responsible for taking care of the estate, paying debts (out of estate funds), and giving estate assets to the people who are allowed to have them.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More For more information about starting the probate process, see the “Start the Probate Process” Chapter of the Guide.

Providers to Contact


Probate Attorneys Near You

Probate Attorneys help settle a deceased person’s estate. They can help you comply with state and federal probate laws, and assist with paperwork, the probate process, and the financial aspects of probate.

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Settle the Estate