The terms "probate" and "probate court" encompass several areas of the law. Effectively, any court process involving a will, trust, estate, guardianship, or conservatorship will be conducted in probate court. For example, when someone passes away with a will, the executor of the will must file a petition in probate court to begin the process of legally carrying out his or her duties as executor.
Will and Trust Disputes
If anyone chooses to contest or dispute someone's will or trust, that dispute will take place in probate court. Probate proceedings are often emotionally draining, there is no certainty as to when they will be resolved, and they are not private. These negative aspects should be impetus enough for individuals and families to craft strong estate plans that drastically reduce the likelihood of any probate court disputes arising. But if such disputes do arise, having a strong estate plan in place will put those families in the best position possible to end the court action quickly.
Guardianships and Conservatorships
The process of petitioning for either a guardianship or conservatorship is done in probate court. Both processes are generally contested, which means that the petitioning party will usually meet some degree of opposition from someone else who has a stake in the process.
Guardianships are put in place to protect children. They generally arise when a child's parents have passed away, or when parents are unfit or unwilling to care for their children. One who is appointed a guardian of a minor is, in effect, given all the rights and obligations of that child's parents. However, this is not the same thing as adoption or custody.
Conservatorships are put in place when an adult is found to be incapable of handling his or her own affairs.
Because guardianships and conservatorships are technically never permanent, they are always subject to at least some degree of regular court review and supervision. They can also be terminated or modified if warranted by a change of circumstances.