by Marc S. Galella, Esq.
One of the most common statements I hear when I am discussing estate planning with my clients is: “How do I avoid probate?” or its alternative: “I want to avoid probate.” My answer to such comments is: “Why do you fear probate?” In most cases the response I receive is (1) “I hear probate is very expensive and can wipe out my estate;” (2) “I hear that probate can take a long time and tie up my estate for years”; or (3) “If my Will is filed for probate, anyone can see what it says.”
The reality is that none of these reasons to avoid probate applies to New Jersey. The probate process in New Jersey, and in Ocean County specifically, is simple, inexpensive and usually takes less than 15 minutes. In fact, it usually takes me longer to explain the probate process than it actually takes to do. In fact, many of the “horror stories” people hear about the probate process almost always occur in other states where the probate process can be both time consuming and expensive.
In New Jersey to probate a Will, you will need the original Will, an original death certificate, the names and addresses of the beneficiaries named in the Will (and any other heirs not named in the Will) and the Social Security Number of the person named in the Will as the executor.
With these documents in hand, the executor named in the Will must go to the Surrogate office in the county in which the decedent was a resident at the time of death. In most cases it is unnecessary to make an appointment. After signing in with the receptionist, the executor will be called to meet with one of the probate clerks. The clerk will take the documents and then prepare the probate documents. In general, the executor will have to sign three different documents in the presence of the probate clerk. Thereafter, the Surrogate office will send the executor what are called Letters Testamentary which then allow the executor to act in place of the decedent to marshal the estate assets, satisfy the estate debts and then to distribute the estate assets as directed by the Will. The fee for probate is based on the number pages in the Will. For example, a four-page Will costs $115.00 to probate, hardly an expense that will wipe out an estate.
Although the Will becomes a public record after it is filed for probate, in my opinion this is of little concern. While it may be a concern for famous people, most of the people reading this article are not so famous that anyone would make a trip to the Surrogate office to read their Wills. The probate process in New Jersey is not a difficult or expensive process and no one should fear the probate process.