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Many lay people believe that a last will and testament controls what happens from the moment the person who signed the will (“the testator”) passes away. In fact, a will has no legal effect whatever until it is probated. The probate court must determine that the will was valid before the terms of the will have any effect.

Moreover, a person who decides to administer an estate without going through the proper probate procedure can put themselves personally at risk. A court could hold that person liable for their actions.

It is wise, therefore, for close family members (or the delegate of the family) to contact a lawyer to begin the probate process. The lawyer will want to know right off the bat all the details about the assets that belonged to the deceased person (“the decedent”).

The first step is to pull together the information that the lawyer will need. Search the desk or any other place that documents were kept in the decedent’s home. If he or she had an office, search that place as well.

Look for the original will. If you cannot find the original, locate a copy. Hang onto copies of all prior wills if they are still in existence. Look for the original or copies of deeds to real property, life insurance contracts, car titles, and documents about any other assets.

A Tennessee statute requires banks to permit relatives, the executor named in a copy of a will, or anyone authorized by court order to open a safe deposit box (with a bank employee present) and remove a will, a contract of life insurance, or any document relating to a burial plot or burial instructions.

Family members should look for tax returns or check with the decedent’s accountant about tax returns. Returns can help locate assets, especially if the assets generated income or deductions.

Family members should keep everything that comes in the mail to the decedent. There should be bank statement, statements from retirement accounts, and bills from creditors.

The internet has resources that can help locate assets. The tax assessor’s office, for example, may have information about real property.

Finally, if it’s possible, given the limitation of password protections, family members can search the decedent’s computer and email to try to locate assets.

Accumulating all this information can make working with a lawyer easier and less expensive. Generally, the lawyer does not have access to most of this information, and it will ultimately fall back to family members in any case.

Either before or after you gather up all the information, contact a lawyer who is experienced in the probate process. You may find that, because of the type of assets, there will be no need to probate the will. Even if you must go through probate, the process is relatively uncomplicated and speedy in Tennessee.

Our firm has substantial experience in guiding our clients through the probate process. We can help you make a cost-effective decision about whether you need to probate a will and, if so, can help you navigate probate with a minimum of time, effort, and attorneys’ fees.