Opening the Estate | Probate Court
Under Tennessee law, a decedent’s estate must be opened with the probate court in the county where the decedent lived. The beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate must be provided with a copy of the petition to open the estate and a copy of the decedent’s will (if one exists). If the decedent left a will containing specific bequests of cash or other property, Tennessee law permits the personal representative to send each beneficiary of a specific bequest only a copy of the portion of the will dealing with such bequest. However, in practice this is rarely done because the will submitted to probate is a public record and accessible by anyone who requests a copy from the probate court clerk and pays a nominal fee. If the decedent did not leave a will, the personal representative is also required to send a copy of the letters to all of the beneficiaries of the estate.
What is the probate attorney’s role when opening the estate?
An important part of a probate attorney’s job is to assist the personal representative in providing proper and timely notice to all beneficiaries of the probate estate. Once done, a probate attorney will prepare and ask you, in your capacity as personal representative, to sign an affidavit stating that proper notice has been provided. This affidavit must be filed with the probate court within 60 days of the opening of the estate.
When you file a petition to open the estate the probate court will schedule a hearing. In some Tennessee counties such as Davidson County, as long as no objection is filed, your attendance at the hearing is not required and may be handled by your attorney. In other Tennessee counties such as Williamson, Sumner, Wilson and Rutherford your attendance at the initial hearing with the probate court to open the decedent’s estate is usually required and your oral testimony may be necessary.
When the estate is opened, the judge will enter an order to probate and the probate court clerk will issue a document called letters testamentary or letters of administration (known simply as “letters”). The letters are the official proof you are a personal representative of the estate. From time to time, as you open estate bank accounts, buy, sell or transfer estate assets or request information about the decedent’s assets or financial or legal affairs, you may be asked to provide a certified copy of your letters.
In Tennessee the estate administration process usually lasts between 4 to 12 months following the opening of the probate estate, assuming there are no complications. Much of your probate attorney’s work and your work as personal representative will occur during the first few months of the estate-administration process. After the estate and inheritance tax returns are filed, there often is a period of inactivity while waiting for confirmation from the taxing authorities that the tax returns have been approved.