Should You Choose Informal or Formal Probate?

By Chris Tymchuck
Founding Attorney

Probate is the legal process through which the estate of a deceased person is settled and distributed to heirs and beneficiaries. In Minnesota, you can choose between informal or formal probate, each catering to different circumstances, but how do you determine which type of probate process might best suit your situation? Understanding the differences between these options is crucial for efficient estate management.

What Is Probate?

Probate is the official procedure for settling a deceased person’s estate under court supervision. This process ensures that the deceased’s assets are correctly distributed to heirs and that any debts are paid. It involves validating the deceased’s will, if one exists, appointing a personal representative or administrator, taking inventory of the assets, settling outstanding debts and taxes, and finally distributing the remaining assets as directed by the will or state law. Probate provides a systematic method for addressing the complexities of an estate, ensuring legal and financial transparency, and safeguarding the rights of all parties involved.

Informal Probate Process

The informal probate process in Minnesota offers a streamlined approach to handling estates without the need for extensive court intervention. This method, which is most commonly used, is typically suitable for estates where there are no disputes among beneficiaries, the will is not contested, and no complicating factors exist. 

The informal process begins with the filing of an application by an interested party, usually the proposed personal representative, who must notify all interested parties. Once the application is approved, the court appoints a personal representative without a formal hearing. This representative then gathers and values the estate’s assets, pays off debts and taxes, and distributes the remaining assets according to the will or state law. Informal probate is generally faster and less costly than formal probate, making it an attractive option for many families looking to settle estates efficiently and with minimal conflict.

Formal Probate Process

Formal probate is necessary in Minnesota when estate matters are complex or disputed. Reasons to initiate a formal probate include the following:

  • Contested Will: Formal probate is required when the validity of a will is challenged by potential heirs or beneficiaries.
  • Disputes Among Heirs: Necessary when there are disputes among heirs regarding the distribution of the estate’s assets.
  • Complex Estate: Suitable for estates that have complicated asset distributions, multiple properties, or business interests.
  • Unclear Beneficiary Designations: Needed when beneficiary designations are missing, unclear, or have legal issues that need resolution.
  • Large Debts or Taxes Owed: Formal probate helps ensure that all debts and taxes are properly handled and paid in accordance with legal standards.
  • Lack of a Will: Often required when there is no will, and the estate must be settled according to state intestacy laws.

The formal probate process involves more rigorous court oversight and begins with the filing of a petition. The court then conducts a hearing to address any issues or objections raised by interested parties. Unlike informal probate, formal probate requires the court to formally appoint a personal representative, often after verifying the validity of the will in the presence of a judge. This representative is responsible for managing the estate’s assets, settling debts, and handling tax obligations under close court supervision. The court must also determine whether the estate should be supervised, meaning the court must sign off on any distributions to heirs before they are made, or unsupervised, meaning the personal representative does not need the court to approve anything before closing the estate.

The process concludes with a detailed accounting submitted to the court and the distribution of the estate’s assets as determined by the court’s final order. Formal probate ensures thorough scrutiny and legal adherence, providing a structured resolution for contested estates.

Comparing Informal and Formal Probate

Informal and formal probate processes serve distinct needs in Minnesota. Informal probate is less cumbersome and quicker, and it is suitable for uncontested estates with clear directives. It bypasses extensive court hearings, focusing on a straightforward asset distribution under minimal supervision. Conversely, formal probate is necessary for complex or contested estates, providing a structured environment with stringent court oversight. This process ensures all disputes are fairly resolved and legal standards are rigorously upheld. When choosing between these, consider factors like the estate’s complexity, the potential for disputes, and the clarity of the deceased’s wishes to determine the most appropriate path.

Contact an Experienced Minneapolis Probate Attorney

At Unique Estate Law, we guide you through the probate process with compassion and clarity, ensuring your peace of mind. Whether it’s informal or formal probate, we are here to help. Contact us today to find the right probate solution for your unique needs.

About the Author
As a Minneapolis Estate Planning and Probate attorney I help build and protect families through the adoption, estate planning, and probate processes. I also have experience working with families on issues related to their small businesses. I know how difficult it is to find time to plan for the future and I am here to help walk you through it.