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When a person dies, he or she often leaves behind property and personal belongings, as well as bills and creditors that must be paid. The person who died is called the decedent. The sum total of all property, personal and real, tangible and intangible, is considered the decedent's estate. In most jurisdictions, the decedent's estate must pass through a legal process known as probate before the estate may be distributed to the heirs or beneficiaries.
Treatment of a decedent's estate may vary throughout the world according to the laws of the legal system, religious laws, and cultural traditions. In some areas of the world, women are still not legally entitled to inherit from a decedent's estate, for example. In addition, in many countries, religious law dictates how property is passed down upon someone's death. In the United States, however, each state has very specific probate laws that determine how a decedent's estate is to be handled upon death.
When a decedent dies and a last will and testament is located, someone must present the will to the court in the county where the decedent died and petition to open a probate estate. As a rule, the person who files the petition is the person named as the executor under the will. In the absence of a will, a family member or close friend may petition to open the estate and request to be named the personal representative. In either case, the court must approve the appointment.
The executor or personal representative will then inventory the estate by making a detailed list of all property, including real estate, personal property, cash, stocks and bonds, and anything else of value. Current market value must also be determined for all property. The inventory must be filed with the court along with all claims of creditors. The executor or personal representative must also review and pay all approved claims of the estate, including taxes.
When all the estate property is accounted for and all approved claims have been paid, the executor or personal representative will file a final accounting with the court. After the court approves the final accounting, the remaining property of the decedent's estate may be passed down to the beneficiaries or heirs. A beneficiary is anyone that the decedent bequeathed property to under the will. An heir is anyone that inherits property under intestate succession, or in the absence of a will.