Valerie M. Therrien
Attorney-At-Law, P.C
529 5th Avenue Suite 300
Fairbanks, AK 99701-4717

Office: (907) 452-6195
Fax: (907) 456-5949

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Probate FAQ

Commonly asked questions on Probate, and their answers, specific to Alaska.

What is Probate? What does it mean?
Probate is a word with several meanings. It means the type of law or that part of the court system that deals with people's estates and wills.

In Fairbanks, the court has a probate department that handles estates, adoptions, mental commitments, guardianships and conservatorships. The office is at 101 Lacey Street, 452-9256.

Used as a verb in "probating the estate" or in "probating a will", the word probate refers to opening an estate file and, if there is a will, getting it accepted as a valid will in court.

How do I avoid Probate?
If, when the will was drawn up the attorney advised that probate would be unnecessary, you should contact the original attorney to assist you in distribution or transfer of any assets.

Who is a good Probate Attorney?
The court system and its employees cannot recommend an attorney. You can check the phone book or call the Bar Association's legal referral service for attorneys who state they do estate law. As a consumer, you might check with several attorneys, inquring how much probate work they do and what they charge. There is no certification for legal specialties in Alaska; thus there are not specially certified probate attorneys in Alaska.

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How do I start?
It is best to check with the Coroner's office when someone dies. They often have items of personal property and can assist in dealing with banks and checking safety deposit boxes. The coroner's office is located in the State Court Building, 101 Lacey Street, 452-9209.

What do I do when someone dies?
It is important when someone dies to determine if the person had a will, and, if they did, to locate it. It is equally important to begin an inventory of the assets and liabilities of the estate, gathering together and making a list of all items of property and debts held by the decedent at death. The right to some things may pass directly through rights of survivorship, while others need to go through estate. A lawyer may be needed to determine this..

How do I find a will?
There is no set place that people keep wills and no requirement that they be kept in any specific place. It is best to find out before a person dies if they have a will and where they keep it. It may be kept in a safe at home, with an attorney, in a safety deposit box, on deposit with the court, or in any number of places.

How do I determine if a will is on deposit at the courthouse?
There is no set place that people keep wills and no requirement that they be kept in any specific place. It is best to find out before a person dies if they have a will and where they keep it. It may be kept in a safe at home, with an attorney, in a safety deposit box, on deposit with the court, or in any number of places.

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What does the court do if the will is on file?
When the court is informed that someone whose will is on file has died, the person designated by the decedent to receive the will is contacted by mail. The person then tells the court if they would like to pick up the will or have it mailed to them.

What if there is no will?
Many people die without having a valid will in force at the time of their death. The legal term applied to this circumstance is that the person died intestate.

What happens to the property of a person who dies intestate?
The Alaska Legislature has created a series of statutes that set forth who gets the property of people who die without wills. It depends on whether they were married or not, had children, and what family members survive them. The specifics are set forth in Alaska Satute 13.12.101

If I find a will or a copy of a will, what should I do?
Any wills or copies of wills or documents made to make a will should be gathered together and kept in a safe place until it can be determined whether or it needs to be filed with the court.

How can I tell if a will is valid?
The validity of wills and how to interpret them are legal concepts of some complexity and generally a legal opinion should be sought out if there is any question on the validity of a will.

How do I get into a safe deposit box?
If you have a key and your name is on the box, it may be opened depending on the bank's regulations. The inventory of the contents should always be taken. If you cannot get access, it is possible the Coroner's office may be of assistance. Contact them at 452-9209.

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Does the estate have to be probated?
There is no requirement under state law that an estate has to be opened and administered through the courts. However, it is generally advisable to do so in any estate of any size or one involving real property. The consequences and weighing of advantages and disadvantages can only be done by an attorney. It is inappropriate for court personnel to comment on whether you should or should not open an estate, so please don't ask.

If I want to probate an estate, can I do it without an attorney?
While it is possible to read the probate statutes, look a other files and draft the forms, and handle the estate without an attorney, it is NOT adviseable and it is best to have an attorney do the filings.

What about taxes?
There are both federal and state taxes on estates of a certain size. The court system cannot give any advice on estate taxes. Contact the Internal Revenue Service on the current status of estate taxation. Both state and federal estate tax returns MUST be filed by the personal representative.

What happens when an estate is opened?
An estate can be opened anytime after 120 hours of death. There are two different types of procedures to open an estate, formal and informal, depending on the status of a will and existing heirs. When an estate is opened, someone is appointed as personal representative. The basic job of the personal representative is to gather the assets of the estate, do an inventory of the assets and close the estate. This can be a simple to very difficult job, depending on a large number of factors. Generally it can be done within a year or two although sometimes it can take several years. The personal representative is reponsible for the proper handling of the assets in his control and may be personally liable if he mismanages the estate. One of the primary reasons to have an attorney offer assistance and protection for the personal representative and insure that the estate is handled in a correct and efficient manner.

What happens if an estate is very small?
A special procedure exists if the entire estate is worth less than $15,000 and is all personal property and no real property (real property is land and buildings). In that case, a form exists called an affidavit for collection of personal property where the next of kin can file the document and by this affidavit make people, such as a bank, turn over all the deceased's property to them. This can be used whether or not there is a will if the estate is small enough and there is no real property. Forms are available for the Coroner's office. There is no filing fee; there is a fee for certified copies. The person gathering up the assets is liable for proper distribution of those assets. This procedure can be started after the person has been dead for 30 days.

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