probate court

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A probate court is a court of limited jurisdiction that hears matters surrounding a person's death. Most frequently, probate courts oversee the distribution of decedent’s assets according to their wills or other testamentary documents and direct the distribution of decedent’s assets if they die intestate (without a will). Probate courts are responsible for determining the validity of testamentary documents and appointing executors to carry out the distribution plan in the documents.

Some probate courts also hear petitions to declare people incompetent and oversee guardians or conservators, while other jurisdictions leave these matters to family courts.

Probate courts are governed by state and local law and they derive their power and jurisdiction from statute. In some states, probate matters are handled by probate divisions of ordinary courts. Some jurisdictions refer to their probate courts as surrogate courts or orphans’ courts.

For examples of state constitutions and statutes setting up probate courts:

Alabama’s Constitution Article VI, § 149 states that the legislature “shall have power to establish in each county a court of probate, with general jurisdiction of orphans' business and with power to grant letters testamentary and of administration; provided, that whenever any court having equity powers has taken jurisdiction of the settlement of any estate, it shall have power to do all things necessary for the settlement of such estate, including the appointment and removal of administrators, executors, guardians, and trustees and including action upon the resignation of either of them.”

Oregon’s § 111.095 provides probate courts with “full, legal and equitable powers to make declaratory judgments, as provided in ORS 28.010 to 28.160, in all matters involved in the administration of an estate, including matters pertaining to the title of real property and ownership of personal property, the determination of heirship and the distribution of the estate.”

[Last updated in January of 2024 by the Wex Definitions Team]