The Probate Process [A Complete Guide]

Lawyers talking at a table.

The probate process can feel overwhelming, especially when looking at all the steps that need to happen before an estate’s assets can be distributed. On the other hand, it can also be oversimplified into simply depositing the will and then handing out belongings. That’s why we’ve broken down each step along with some of the most common questions we receive. 

The probate process in Tennessee begins as soon as a death certificate, will, and petition are filed at the probate clerk’s office. Then, the probate clerk publishes a notification to creditors of the death, while the lawyer, executor, or personal representative sends notifications to any known creditors. Then the executor or personal representative pays any remaining debt and taxes with the money from the estate. After this has been completed, assets are distributed to the appropriate beneficiaries and probate is closed.

What is Probate?

If a will is present, the executor deposits it at the probate clerk’s office. It must be the probate clerk in the county where the deceased lived. If there isn’t a will, someone in the family must be court-appointed as an administrator. The administrator is then responsible for depositing the death certificate and petition at the probate clerk’s office. Then, the executor or administrator will carry out the will, paying off taxes and debts with money from the estate and distributing assets to the beneficiaries.

That is an extremely broad overview, which is why we have outlined each step below with its specific nuances.

  1. The executor deposits the will and death certificate at the probate clerk’s office where the deceased lived and files a petition, typically a petition for probate.
  2. The executor is issued letters testamentary, allowing them access and take control of estate assets.
    1. If there is no will, a family member can request to be appointed as administrator.
    2. If the court approves the administrator’s request, they are issued letters of administration.
  3. The representative (executor or administrator) obtains a taxpayer ID number from the IRS to open a checking account for the estate.
  4. The court affirms the will as valid and enforceable.
  5. The local probate clerk publishes a notice of death to notify creditors.
    1. Creditors who receive actual notice of their right to file a claim have four months from the date of publication to file a claim against the estate. 
    2. Creditors who do not receive actual notice have up to one year from the date the person died to file a claim against the estate.
  6. The representative takes an inventory of the estate’s assets unless the will waives this requirement or all heirs and beneficiaries waive this requirement.
  7. Notice is given to the Bureau of TennCare to determine if the decedent received benefits from the state.
  8. The representative pays off any remaining debts and taxes with funds from the estate.
  9. The representative distributes the remaining assets to the beneficiaries, including a deed to any real property passing via the estate.

What Representatives Must Do Within 60 Days of Appointment

There aren’t hard deadlines for closing out the probate process in Tennessee. As long as the executor can prove progress is being made, the estate can stay open. However, there are certain actions the executor should accomplish within 60 days of being appointed to keep the process moving and to avoid being removed as executor or personal representative. 

Within 60 days of being appointed, the administrator or executor of the estate should:

  • Provide an inventory of the deceased’s assets.
    • This isn’t required if the will states otherwise or all the beneficiaries agree that it is not necessary.
  • Notify people who are beneficiaries.
  • File a TennCare Request for Release in order to not pay reimbursements from the estate for the decedent’s nursing home or home care.
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If the decedent owned property in another state, it may be necessary to file probate in that state as well. Often called ancillary probate, this process allows the executor to transfer the out-of-state property to the beneficiaries. This can be avoided if the out-of-state property is titled so that it goes directly to beneficiaries. This must be done before the owner of the property dies.

It should also be noted that the personal representative is required to share certain details with beneficiaries.

These details include:

  • The inventory of estate assets
  • Accounting of expenses paid for the estate and monies collected

If beneficiaries feel there has been no progress on the estate or that the executor has not communicated any information with them, they have a few different options.

Beneficiaries can:

  • Make a formal demand for action
  • Petition the court to force the executor into action
  • Ask for a report of actions taken by the executor
  • Petition the court to remove and replace the executor

If the personal representative isn’t fulfilling their role or is keeping information from the beneficiaries, a probate attorney may be necessary. They can move the process forward by taking legal action and informing you of your rights. They can even help petition the court to have the personal representative or executor removed from their role.

Do I Have to Go Through the Probate Process in Tennessee?

Probate is necessary in order to officially distribute assets from the deceased to the proper parties. Many people opt to hire a probate attorney because of how complex and time-consuming certain cases can become. Many jurisdictions even require you to have a probate attorney to administer an estate.

Probate can become more complex in cases where:

  • The deceased owns real estate in another state (ancillary probate)
  • No will is present (intestate)
  • Tense family relations exist 
  • Assets are unique and difficult to divide, such as heirlooms or vehicles
  • If there are competing versions of the will
  • If there are disputed claims against the estate

Any one of these variables can lengthen the probate process. Even with a standard probate case, the steps can be time-consuming. An experienced probate attorney understands the complexities of each case and can carry the burden during a difficult time.

If an estate is worth less than $50,000 and there is no real property, then it is considered a “small estate.” Small estates are eligible for a simplified probate process, which can make the process quicker.

If the estate qualifies as a small estate, the representative must provide:

  • An affidavit outlining the estate’s debts and assets, signed by all beneficiaries
  • A death certificate

The process of applying for a small estate process has evolved due to recent changes in Tennessee Code § 30-4-101. The requirements for applying for a small estate may vary depending on which county the decedent lived in, so be sure to check the specific requirements for that county.

Then the probate court will issue an order appointing a personal representative with limited powers to collect the assets outlined in the small estate affidavit and disperse them to the persons entitled to receive them. 

When Is Probate Necessary?

Probate is necessary when:

  • Assets are owned solely by the deceased
  • Assets are owned as a tenant in common
  • Predeceased beneficiaries or no designated beneficiaries exist
  • No will is present
  • A valid will is present

Assets Are Owned Solely by the Deceased

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Some assets are solely owned in the name of the deceased. Since there are no joint owners, probate is necessary in order to transfer the asset to the beneficiary. In Tennessee, the only exception to this rule is motor vehicles. They can be transferred directly to the deceased’s heirs without undergoing probate.

Assets Are Owned as Joint Tenancy

There are two ways for an estate asset to be considered shared ownership. These include:

  • Tenancy in common, or TIC
    • In order for the beneficiary to own the property, it will have to go to probate court.
    • To avoid this from occurring,
      • The asset can be retitled into the deceased’s trust
      • Rights of survivorship can be granted
      • Money or assets can be placed in an accounts payable upon death account
  • Tenancy by entirety, or TBE
    • This is shared ownership through a marital relationship and grants ownership of the estate asset to the surviving spouse

Predeceased Beneficiaries or No Designated Beneficiaries Exist

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When beneficiaries die before they are able to inherit anything, they are considered predeceased beneficiaries. In this scenario, assets that were going to go to the deceased beneficiary must go through probate so they can be transferred to other beneficiaries. The same holds true when no designated beneficiaries are listed in the will.

No Will is Present

When someone dies without a legal will, it is known as intestate. If someone dies intestate, probate is necessary to determine who will receive the assets from the estate. Tennessee law outlines the designated order of beneficiaries when no will is present.

If no will is present, assets will be distributed in the following order:

  1. Spouse, if there are no children
  2. Spouse and children, if there are children
  3. Parents
  4. Siblings
  5. Nieces or nephews
  6. Cousins

If there is a living spouse and no children, then the spouse inherits the entire estate.

If there is no surviving spouse but living children, then the children equally inherit the estate.

If both the spouse and children are alive, then the spouse inherits one-third of the estate or a child’s equal share. The amount they receive is determined by whichever is greater— one-third of the estate or a child’s equal share. The children receive an equal share of the remaining estate.

A Valid Will is Present

Even when a will is proven valid, probate is still necessary in order to officially move ownership of an estate or asset to another person. The probate court must still ensure assets are distributed to the beneficiaries outlined in the will and that all debts and taxes are paid.

What Assets Go Through Probate?

In Tennessee, any asset in the name of the deceased should go through probate. 

The only exceptions are:

  • When there are two people on the deed
    • The remaining living person on the deed would receive the asset if they are husband and wife or a joint tenant with rights of survivorship.
  • When an asset has a named beneficiary
    • The asset typically goes straight to the beneficiary without needing probate.

The assets that must go through probate include everything from bank accounts to personal property like jewelry, furniture, and electronic devices. Taking inventory of all the assets can be extremely overwhelming, but this step is only required if the beneficiaries can’t agree on how to distribute the assets.

Johnson, Murrell, & Associates can help you through this process. It can be confusing and stressful to figure out the complexities of probate. Our job is to make your life easier, which means guiding you through the entire process.

How Long Does Probate Take?

The length of probate varies depending on how complex the estate, assets, and family dynamics are. Under normal circumstances, probate can take anywhere from six months to a year. Difficult family dynamics can cause the will to be contested, elongating the process. If the administrator of the estate is doing probate alone, without professional assistance, the process will take longer.

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How Long Does Probate Take Without a Will?

If there is no will, the court will need to appoint a personal representative. It can take time to find a personal representative. People can turn down the job. If it is difficult to find someone to agree to the role, it could add months to the process. Additionally, if a beneficiary makes additional claims to the estate, it will add more time.

Professional probate assistance can simplify complex cases and streamline the entire probate process. 

A probate lawyer:

  • Files the required documents
  •  Manages debt claims filed against the estate and the order of payment of debts
  • Notifies creditors

The lawyers at Johnson, Murrell, & Associates have over four decades of probate experience. We understand that handling a loved one’s estate and bills after their passing is an emotional, stressful experience. Let us take care of administering their estate and probating their will so it goes into effect, upholding their wishes.

Contact us at Johnson, Murrell, & Associates.

How Much Do Probate Lawyers Cost in Tennessee?

Having a lawyer to help you with every step of the process sounds great, but then you start to think about how expensive it could be. The nice thing about probate lawyers is they can be paid for out of the estate’s funds.

The cost varies depending on the:

  • Size of the estate
  • Value of the estate
  • Complexity of the estate
  • Beneficiaries’ claims or disputes

Some firms charge by the hour, while other firms charge a flat rate. Lawyers can no longer charge a contingency fee or percentage of the estate. If an estate is bigger and more complex, it will be more expensive than a small, simple estate. Attorney fees vary depending on the firm you choose.

Johnson, Murrell, & Associates charges a flat fee so you know what pricing to expect up-front. Contact us today to learn what the cost of probate would be for your situation.

There are also fees outside of a lawyer including:

  • Appraisal fees
  • Accounting fees
  • Taxes
  • Court costs
  • Executor & Personal Representative Fees

Appraisal Fees

The estate and its assets may need to be appraised after an inventory of the estate is taken. Many people don’t have the capacity to appraise all of the estate’s belongings, so they hire professional assistance. 

Accounting Fees

If the estate is simple, you may be able to manage the finances on your own. For more complex estates, you’ll probably want to hire an accountant to handle the estate’s finances. 

Accountants can help you:

  • Prepare and file estate tax returns
  • Manage stocks and investment accounts


There is no inheritance tax in the state of Tennessee. Most estates will not owe federal inheritance taxes. Income taxes as well as any other taxes must be paid off along with all other debts before the assets can be divided among the beneficiaries. These taxes are paid out of the estate—the executor is not personally responsible for them.

Court Costs

Court fees typically cost $100-$600 depending on the county. To learn the exact court fee, you can call the probate or chancery court in the county where the deceased lived.

Executor & Personal Representative Fees

In Tennessee, executors and personal representatives can be paid for the role out of the estate’s funds. Unless otherwise specified in the will, the probate court determines a reasonable amount.

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Do I Need a Probate Lawyer?

Some jurisdictions allow you to do probate on your own, but it’s not recommended. The probate process is time-consuming and complex.

Hiring a probate lawyer gives you the assurance that the estate is being taken care of by an experienced professional. You shouldn’t have to solve probate intricacies or comb through every debt owed on your passed loved one’s estate. A probate lawyer can carry that burden for you.

A probate lawyer can help you:

  • Navigate the legal process
  • Represent you in probate court
  • Notify creditors
  • Negotiate with creditors
  • Handle beneficiary disputes
  • Pay off bills
  • Submit paperwork
  • Avoid making mistakes

Contact Johnson, Murrell, & Associates for Your Tennessee Probate Questions

Since 1976, Johnson, Murrell, & Associates has provided top-tier probate assistance throughout Tennessee, including the following counties:

  • Blount County
  • Sevier County
  • Knox County
  • Hamilton County
  • Sullivan County
  • Washington County

Probate officially starts when the final will and testament along with the death certificate and petition are deposited at the probate clerk’s office. Then, the probate clerk in the county where the decedent passed notifies creditors of the death with a notice in the newspaper. The executor or personal representative is then responsible for paying off debts and taxes. Once this is done, the estate’s assets are able to be dispersed among beneficiaries, closing the probate process.

When you choose Johnson, Murrell, & Associates, you are choosing a team that understands how legal issues affect you, your family, and your business. Let us take care of administering your loved one’s estate and probating their will so it goes into effect, upholding their wishes. For more information on how we can help you through the probate process call us at 865-453-1091 or contact us here.

Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson is a partner at Johnson, Murrell & Associates specializing in probate law. He is a University of Tennessee College of Law graduate, and his experience includes serving on the Leadership Tomorrow Advisory Board, the Sevierville Commons Association, and the Board of Directors for the United Way of Sevier County.