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A probate court (sometimes called a surrogate court) is a court that has competence in a jurisdiction to deal with matters of probate and the administration of estates. In some jurisdictions, such courts may be referred to as Orphans' Courts, or courts of ordinary. In some jurisdictions probate court functions are performed by a chancery court or another court of equity, or as a part or division of another court.
Probate courts administer proper distribution of the assets of a decedent (one who has died), adjudicates the validity of wills, enforces the provisions of a valid will (by issuing the grant of probate), prevents malfeasance by executors and administrators of estates, and provides for the equitable distribution of the assets of persons who die intestate (without a valid will), such as by granting a grant of administration giving judicial approval to the personal representative to administer matters of the estate.
In contested matters, the probate court examines the authenticity of a will and decides who is to receive the deceased person's property. In a case of an intestacy, the court determines who is to receive the deceased's property under the law of its jurisdiction. The probate court will then oversee the process of distributing the deceased's assets to the proper beneficiaries. A probate court can be petitioned by interested parties in an estate, such as when a beneficiary feels that an estate is being mishandled. The court has the authority to compel an executor to give an account of their actions.
In some jurisdictions (e.g. Texas) probate courts also handle other matters, such as guardianships, trusts, and mental health issues (including the authority to order involuntary commitment to psychiatric facilities).
An Orphans' Court was an organization established in the Chesapeake Bay American colonies during colonization. The major goal of the organization was to protect orphaned children and their right to their deceased family member's estate from claims and against abuses by stepparents and others.
Today, at least in Maryland and Pennsylvania, probate courts are still called Orphans' Courts, for historical reasons, hearing matters involving wills of deceased estates which are contested and supervising estates which are probated judicially.
List of probate courts
The following is a partial list of probate courts:
- Prerogative court – former
- Court of Probate – former
- High Court of Justice Family Division – current
State courts of the United States
- California Superior Court
- Connecticut – Connecticut Probate Courts (a system of 54 probate court districts)
- Delaware — Office of Register of Wills
- District of Columbia – Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Probate Division
- Georgia – Court of Ordinary (judge known as ordinary) (former)
- Maryland – County Orphans' Courts, Office of Register of Wills
- Massachusetts – Probate and Family Court
- Michigan — County Probate Courts
- Missouri – conducted by Circuit Courts, some of which have separate probate divisions, Office of Public Administrator
- New Hampshire – New Hampshire Probate Court
- New Jersey – New Jersey Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Surrogate's Court (judges known as surrogates), Surrogate's Office
- New York – New York Surrogate's Court (judges known as surrogates)
- Ohio – conducted by Courts of Common Pleas, Family and Probate Divisions, Probate Court
- Pennsylvania – Orphans' Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas, Office of Register of Wills
- Texas – see Judiciary of Texas; the county court handles probate matters in most instances, but its jurisdiction may overlap with the district court. Also, in ten specific counties the Texas Legislature has established one or more Probate Courts to handle probate matters, removing them from county or district court jurisdiction.
- Vermont – Probate Courts, one in each of Vermont's 14 counties
- Virginia – Virginia Circuit Court
- New Brunswick – Probate Court of New Brunswick
- Nova Scotia – Probate Court of Nova Scotia
- All other provinces are constitutionally required to process probate through their superior courts as per section 96 of the Constitution, 1867.