Probate is a court-supervised legal process that may be required after someone dies. Probate gives someone—usually the surviving spouse or other close family member—authority to gather the deceased person's assets, pay debts and taxes, and eventually transfer assets to the people who inherit them. However, probate in New Jersey isn't always required and a simplified process may be available for small uncomplicated estates.
Probate court proceedings aren't always necessary. Some assets, called "nonprobate" assets, can be transferred to their new owners without probate.
Common nonprobate assets include:
You might find that all or most of the deceased person's property can be transferred without going through probate.
If the deceased person didn't leave a will or a lot of valuable property, surviving family members can take advantage of New Jersey's simplified probate procedures. The streamlined probate, which is quicker and less expensive than regular probate, is available to:
Instead of regular probate, these probate shortcuts involve filing an affidavit (sworn statement) with the court to claim the deceased person's property. No court proceedings are necessary.
If the estate doesn't qualify for simplified procedures, and the assets must go through probate, the estate will likely have to go through the regular probate process in New Jersey. This process is handled by the probate court (called "surrogate court" in New Jersey) in the county in which the deceased person lived.
Below are the main steps in the New Jersey probate process. If all goes smoothly, the process should take less than a year.
If the deceased person named you to serve as executor in his or her will, and probate is necessary, you will go to the surrogate's court and request to be formally appointed as executor of the estate. This can happen as soon as 10 days after the death. You'll need to supply the will and a certified copy of the death certificate. If the will isn't "self-proving," one of the two witnesses who watched the deceased person sign it and signed the will themselves must appear in court (or submit a sworn statement) as well.
If there is no will, or the person named in the will isn't available or willing to serve, the probate court will appoint an "administrator." This person does the same job as an executor. New Jersey law gives the surviving spouse or domestic partner, if any, first priority to be appointed as administrator.
An executor or administrator who is not a resident of New Jersey must post a bond, unless the will states that it's not necessary. A bond is a kind of insurance policy that protects the estate if the executor or administrator mismanages or steals estate funds.
Unless there is reason to think the will is not valid, or someone is contesting the will in court (this is called a "will caveat"), the surrogate's court will issue a document called "Letters Testamentary" (if the executor was named in the will) or "Letters of Administration" (if the court appoints an administrator). This document gives the executor or administrator the duty and authority to:
Within 60 days after a will is admitted to probate, the executor or administrator must mail notice of the proceeding to all heirs (people who inherit under state law in the absence of a will) and beneficiaries named in the will.
An executor or administrator is entitled to compensation, called a commission, for the work of settling the estate. The commission is 6% of income received by the estate plus 5% of the value of the gross estate for estates up to $200,000.00, 3.5% on the excess above $200,000 to $1 million, and 2% on amounts over $1 million. NJ Rev. Stat. § § 3B:18-13 and -14.
Usually, the executor or administrator opens a bank account for the estate and consolidates existing cash accounts in the estate account. The executor deposits amounts that come into the estate (for example, compensation earned by the deceased person, refunds, and other miscellaneous payments) into the account and uses the funds to pay estate expenses.
The executor or administrator has authority over any assets that go through probate. Probate assets can include vehicles, real estate, bank and brokerage accounts, and personal belongings (for example, jewelry, home furnishings, artwork, and collections). Life insurance proceeds that are payable to the estate (not a named beneficiary) are also probate assets.
The executor or administrator must keep careful records of how estate assets are handled and distributed and may need to submit receipts, bills and bank statements to the court. Before the probate can be closed, the executor will have to submit an accounting, showing all assets, disbursements of estate money, and proposed distribution to inheritors. If all the beneficiaries approve the accounting, a formal approval from the court isn't necessary.
It's the executor's job to pay valid debts and expenses of the estate. The executor can ask the court for an Order Limiting Creditors; this gives creditors nine months to come forward with claims. NJ Rev. Stat. § 3B:22-4.
If there's not enough money in the estate to pay all debts, the executor or administrator must turn to state law, which prioritizes claims. The family is paid first; the surviving spouse and children under 18 are entitled to a year's support. After that come funeral expenses, costs of probate (court filing fees, lawyers' fees, and more), taxes, and expenses of the last illness, in that order. The list goes on; you'll need to consult it only if the estate can't pay all the bills. If that's your situation, you'll want to get legal advice before you start writing checks. NJ Rev. Stat. § 3B:22-2
The executor or administrator must file final New Jersey and federal income tax returns for the deceased person. These returns are generally due by April 15 of the year following the year of death. Income tax returns may also be required for the estate itself, if it receives income.
A federal estate tax return will be required only if the taxable estate is very large—for deaths in 2023, more than $12.92 million. More than 99% of all estates do not owe federal estate tax. New Jersey did away with estate tax for deaths that occurred in 2018 and later.
However, New Jersey imposes an inheritance tax. Unlike estate tax, inheritance tax rates are not based on the amount of the entire estate, but on who inherits. More distant relatives and unrelated persons pay a higher rate than close family members.
The executor or administrator can distribute estate assets to inheritors only after debts and taxes are paid. The executor must also check, before distributing assets, to be sure that an inheritor has not been found liable for back child support. This is called a Child Support Judgment search. (NJ Rev. Stat. § 2A:17-56.23b.)
The executor or administrator follows the instructions in the will, or if there is no will, turns to state law to determine who inherits. New Jersey law provides that the deceased person's closest relatives inherit his or her assets. When the executor or administrator has paid all debts, filed the required tax returns, and distributed all the estate assets, the court will relieve the executor of his or her duties.
For more information on navigating the probate process and settling a loved one's estate, see The Executor's Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo).