The Rhode Island Probate Court has jurisdiction over assets of a decedent if those assets are in the decedent’s name alone, there are no surviving joint owners, and there are no beneficiary designations that control the disposition of the assets. If an asset such as a bank account is owned as joint tenants with the right of survivorship, the account will pass to the surviving joint owner without Probate Court involvement. Similarly, tax-deferred assets such as an IRA or 401(k) will pass to the surviving designated beneficiary. Investment accounts can also name a “Transfer on Death” or “Payable on Death” beneficiary.
When there is no surviving joint owner or a beneficiary designation, then the Probate Court will determine the disposition of the decedent’s assets. If a decedent has a valid Will, the assets will be distributed in accordance with the terms of the Will. If a decedent had no Will, the laws of intestacy govern the disposition of the assets. In other words, the State of Rhode Island will supply the decedent with a Will by default.
In Rhode Island, the probate court is a municipal court, meaning that each of the 39 cities and towns has their own court. To initiate the probate process, a petition must be filed in the city or town where the decedent resided. The petition names the decedent and the heirs of the decedent. If the decedent died with a Will, the beneficiaries under the Will are also included in the petition. All those individuals and organizations named in the petition must receive notice in advance describing the hearing date when the probate court will review the petition.
The petition requests that the probate court appoint either the executor named under the Will or an administrator for an intestate estate (decedent died without a Will). A common misconception is that the executor listed in the Will can act because the Will names them. That is not the case. The Will essentially nominates the executor, but it is up to the probate court to determine whether the will is valid and appoint the executor.