What Happens in Colorado Probate Court? A Step-by-Step Guide

what happens in probate court

Losing someone you love is incredibly difficult. On top of grieving, you now must wrap up their personal affairs. If the deceased person (known legally as the “decedent”) left behind property or assets, these must be transferred to their rightful heirs and beneficiaries. But how exactly does this work?

Probate court can feel confusing and intimidating when you’re already grieving. Our legal team can guide you through the process with ease. In this article, we’ll walk through a step-by-step overview of probate in Colorado so you can feel informed and empowered during this challenging transition.

What is Probate, and When is it Required?

Probate is the legal process for distributing the decedent’s property after their passing under court supervision. The court appoints an executor (called a personal representative) to carry out the person’s wishes, pay any outstanding debts, and transfer assets to heirs.

According to Colorado law, probate is required if the decedent owned any real estate or more than $80,000 in personal assets. However, certain properties like trusts or accounts with designated beneficiaries bypass probate.

While no one welcomes court proceedings, probate provides structure, ensuring the decedent’s wishes are honored, and creditors are paid before distributing the inheritance. Think of it as the final accounting of someone’s life.

Overview of the Probate Process in Colorado

The probate process involves several key steps under court oversight:

  • Petition – Someone files paperwork petitioning the court to open probate and appoint a personal representative.
  • Appoint Personal Representative – The court officially appoints an executor (known as a personal representative) to handle the estate administration. This person inventories assets, pays debts, and distributes property.
  • Notify Heirs & Beneficiaries – The personal representative must notify all heirs and beneficiaries of their appointment.
  • Inventory Assets – The personal representative identifies, values, and catalogs all the decedent’s property to determine the total estate.
  • Notice to Creditors – The personal representative must publish notice to creditors in accordance with Colorado law.
  • Pay Debts – The personal representative uses estate assets to settle the decedent’s remaining financial obligations and taxes.
  • Distribute to Heirs – After debts are settled, the personal representative distributes the remaining property to the decedent’s rightful heirs according to wishes in the will or per Colorado inheritance laws.
  • Close Estate – Once distribution is completed and the court approves, probate concludes, and the estate can close.

If this sounds potentially lengthy and expensive, there are ways to simplify probate in Colorado, which we’ll discuss more below.

How to Open Probate Court Proceedings in Colorado

To start court-supervised probate after death, someone must petition the District Court in the county where the person lived. Who can file the petition? Generally, anyone with an interest in the estate can initiate probate, including:

  • A named personal representative or executor in the will
  • Surviving spouse inheriting property
  • Next of kin set to inherit assets
  • A creditor owed money

When petitioning to open probate, the filer must provide key documentation including:

  • Original last will and testament – The court reviews the terms and validity of any existing will.
  • Death certificate – This legally confirms the decedent’s passing.
  • List of heirs – This identifies all legal beneficiaries either named in the will or entitled to inherit under Colorado law if no will exists.

Petitioners can choose between formal or informal probate proceedings, which we’ll compare next.

Formal vs Informal Probate in Colorado

Colorado recognizes two types of probate administration:

Informal Probate

An informal proceeding works when a valid will exists, no conflict over asset distribution or executor appointment exists, and someone qualifies to informally serve as a personal representative. The court approves matters in this simplified process without requiring hearings. It moves faster than formal probate.

Formal Probate

Formal proceedings involve added court supervision, including required notices and hearings. The court mandates formal probate when:

  • The will’s validity is questionable or contested by heirs
  • Conflict exists over who should inherit assets or serve as executor
  • No qualified executor named in a will or entitled to informally serve

Because formal probate takes more time, attorneys recommend informal proceedings whenever meeting the criteria. However, for complex estates or serious family disputes over inheritance, formal proceedings provide necessary court intervention.

Appointing an Executor or Personal Representative in Colorado Probate Court

A probated estate requires appointing an executor, known legally as a “personal representative,” to carry out administration. This involves extensive asset management and distribution duties requiring organization, attention to detail, and integrity.

The personal representative steps into the shoes of the deceased, taking legal responsibility for wrapping up someone’s life. It is an important position. So, who selects the executor?

  • The decedent names an executor in their last will and testament. Barring disqualification, Colorado courts give priority to this nominated representative.
  • However, if the nominated executor dies before the testator or becomes disqualified, Colorado law contains a priority list of those eligible to serve as personal representative by relation. Common appointments include a surviving spouse or next of kin.

In formal probate proceedings, heirs can dispute a nominated executor if grounds exist to disqualify them from serving. While the court will aim to honor the decedent’s chosen representative, they must act on serious concerns over mismanagement or conflict of interest.

Inventorying Assets & Liabilities in Colorado Probate Court

One major duty of the court-appointed personal representative is compiling a complete inventory of probate property. This accounting of assets and liabilities includes:

  • Cataloging all separately-owned property – Real estate, vehicles, bank accounts, stocks/bonds, collectibles, furniture, jewelry, equipment, and any other personally-owned assets.
  • Digitizing and organizing records – Deeds, titles, and financial statements documenting asset ownership and value.
  • Determining precise date-of-death property value for courts to review.
  • Compiling all outstanding debts, including mortgages, credit accounts, and personal loans. These must get paid out of the estate during probate before distributing inheritance.

After thorough inventory and appraisal, the representative formally submits the probate asset report for the court’s review and approval before paying estate debts.

Settling Debts, Taxes & Claims in Colorado Probate Court

Before distributing inheritance, the court ensures settling the decedent’s remaining financial obligations. Colorado probate law establishes creditor claim proceedings.

After being appointed as a personal representative, they must notify all creditors of probate opening according to the requirements of Colorado law. This starts a four-month creditor claim window. Known creditors receive direct notice to submit payment requests. Public notification also invites unknown creditors to come forward.

The personal representative carefully reviews all claims to determine their validity before approving or denying them based on estate resources. By law, they must prioritize paying the costs and expenses of estate administration first. After administrative and funeral expenses, outstanding medical bills, credit accounts, mortgage and personal loans, and taxes all require paying from estate assets before allotting inheritance.

For approved claims, the representative makes payments throughout probate as much as possible, depending on liquidity. During this time, selling property or consolidating accounts raises funds, allowing debt payout. Colorado probate court must ensure no outstanding obligations before closing the estate.

Distributing the Estate & Closing Probate in Colorado

Only once all financial loose ends tie up does asset distribution to heirs finally occur. The personal representative submits a formal proposal to the court detailing recipients and assets allotted according to the legally binding last will and testament or intestacy laws in its absence.

The court reviews the distribution plan to ensure enough money will pay outstanding debts before heirs get their inheritance. If approved, the court issues an order allowing assets to be distributed. Property titles and deeds are transferred to those inheriting assets or trusts.

The estate stays open throughout this process. Eventually, the personal representative petitions the court for formal discharge after conclusively:

  • Settling all approved creditor claims
  • Paying any taxes
  • Distributing all property to inheriting parties
  • Filing final tax returns

The court reviews filings, ensuring the representative properly performs all duties before officially closing probate. The estate and decedent’s affairs formally conclude.

Let Our Attorneys Answer Your Probate Questions

Losing someone raises a thousand questions about wrapping up their lives. It can be overwhelming during an already difficult time. Please know our attorneys always listen with compassion.

Whether you need help getting named estate executor, have doubts about the left behind will, or wonder what probate paperwork needs filing, call Hammond Law Group. Count on us as your probate guide each step of the way until you embrace closure. We simplify asset distribution, easing you through court processes with legal support at each step.

To learn more or schedule a consultation with our inheritance attorneys, contact our offices in Denver or Colorado Springs office today.

Author Bio

Catherine Hammond is the CEO and founder of Hammond Law Group, a Colorado-based estate planning law firm she founded in 2005. With a strong focus on protecting families from the legal consequences of disability and death, she creates comprehensive estate plans that minimize taxes, costs, and government interference.

A native of Denver, Catherine completed her undergraduate studies at Coe College in Iowa, and her Juris Doctorate from the University of Denver College of Law in 1993, concentrating on estate planning, tax, and mediation. Catherine is a member of various professional organizations, including WealthCounsel, ElderCounsel, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, the Colorado Springs Estate Planning Council, and the Purposeful Planning Institute. Beyond her legal expertise, Catherine provides transformational coaching to support clients and their families through life transitions.

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