Estate Administration and Probate

Estate Administration and Probate

When a person passes away, the property that person owned is generally called an "estate". The estate will be passed to that person's heirs or beneficiaries through a process referred to as estate administration. Part of that estate administration process may involve assets passing under the terms of a Last Will and Testament. Assets distributed pursuant to a Will must go through probate under the supervision of the Probate Court. Assets may also pass outside of probate to beneficiaries under the terms of a trust agreement, joint ownership arrangements or by beneficiary designation. See our FAQ section for more detailed information on probate and estate taxes.

Common Estate Administration Terminology

The process of probate and estate administration can seem complicated, in part because of the specialized terms that are used. To clarify the process, it helps to understand what some common probate terms mean.

  • The decedent is the person who died
  • An estate is the decedent’s property
  • Testate means the decedent died with a Will
  • Intestate means the decedent died without a Will
  • Heirs are the people who receive property when a person dies without a Will
  • Beneficiaries are the people who are designated to receive property in a person’s Will, trust or from life insurance and retirement accounts
  • The Executor is the person named in a Will who will manage the estate and oversee distribution of estate assets
  • An estate Administrator is appointed to oversee an estate when a decedent died without a Will

Probate and Estate Administration in Rhode Island

If a person dies testate (with a Will), the person named in the Will as the Executor must open an estate with the probate court to “prove” the Will. Proving a Will means that a probate court judge reviews the Will to ensure that it is valid.

Once the Will has been proved, the probate court will issue a Certificate of Appointment that formally gives Executor power to administer the estate.

Once the estate is ready to be administered, the Executor will take an inventory of the estate, pay outstanding debts and taxes, and distribute the estate according to the terms of the Will.

If the decedent died intestate (without a Will), the court will appoint an estate Administrator who will oversee the administration of the estate.

Can I Avoid Probate?

Certain assets are not subject to probate. Assets can pass outside of probate if they are:

  • Transferable on death
  • Payable upon death
  • Owned with a right of survivorship
  • Placed in a trust

For smaller estates, Rhode Island allows for a simplified process of estate administration. In Rhode Island, an estate is eligible for the simplified administration if the estate is valued at less than $15,000.

How a Sullivan & Sullivan Probate Attorney Can Help

Probate and estate administration is a complicated process. By working with the experienced attorneys of Sullivan & Sullivan, you and your family gain peace of mind in the knowledge that your loved one’s estate is being handled the right way.

Sullivan & Sullivan, P.C. has been handling estate administration and probate in and around North Kingstown since 1955. Meet our team and learn what to expect when you work with us, read testimonials from other people we have helped, and contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your needs.

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Frequently Asked Questions

When should I sign a Will?

Many people put off talking to an estate planning lawyer until they are in their later years, but even young people, and certainly young families, can benefit from the tools used in estate planning.

When is it critical to review your estate plan, and why?

Just like other important life tasks, your estate plan deserves your time and attention. It's important that you work with us to review your estate plan at least every few years. A meeting within a fixed period isn't the only time you need to consider your estate plan. The occurrence of special life events may mean it is time to pick up the phone and call us.

If you experience any of these significant life events, get in touch with us, and we'll make sure you are up to date.


Have you recently gotten married? Congratulations! Marriage means new ways of sharing and managing finances and assets. It also means any existing will is revoked by marriage under Rhode Island law. As a result, this is an important time to revisit your estate plan. With this life change, you'll need to contact us to make any changes to your beneficiary designations, update your will/trust, and update your powers of attorney. This is especially important if this is a second marriage and/or there are children from a previous relationship involved. Proper estate planning is the only way to ensure that you are protecting your loved ones the way you want.

New Job

A new job presents an exciting new set of challenges and opportunities to explore. It also brings very real financial changes. You may be receiving new benefits that require new beneficiary designations on your estate plan. When you are filling out these new forms, it is important that the beneficiaries are named appropriately so your estate plan will work as designed. In addition, you'll need to make sure your estate plan reflects the change to your financial status, whether that's a pay increase or a pay cut.

Loss of a Job

Similarly, leaving employment brings big changes to your financial situation and to your estate plan. It's important to update your plan to reflect the loss of employer-provided benefits such as life insurance, as well as the change in financial status.


Retirement brings lifestyle changes, more time for loved ones, and important financial developments. We can help you change your plan to reflect that you've stopped earning income and have entered the phase where you will be beginning to use your retirement account. Also, with this new-found freedom, you may find yourself traveling more, making documents such as a Financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney more crucial.


If you have moved across state lines, you'll need to consult with a local estate planning attorney to make sure that the provisions in your estate planning document are still applicable in your new state. A new home is a new asset, and it is important that this asset is titled appropriately to carry out your overall estate plan.


Divorce is, of course, a difficult time. But it is critical to look out for your financial health and future if it occurs. You should make any needed updates to the beneficiaries on your estate plan and ensure your beneficiary designations on any life insurance or retirement accounts are changed so that your ex-spouse does not end up with your assets upon your passing.


There is so much to take care of after the loss of a loved one. Take some time, but don't forget that your estate plan will need to be updated to reflect the change that has taken place. You may need to remove the deceased loved one as a beneficiary from any will, trust, life insurance policy, or retirement account and determine what will now happen to that share. It is also important to verify that your deceased loved one was not appointed as a fiduciary, or if so, to make the necessary adjustments to your documents.

Received Inheritance

The death of a loved one not only brings a loss but may result in an inheritance. An inheritance can mean property, money, real estate, and more. An increase in assets may necessitate a change in your estate planning strategy. Also, depending on the form of the inheritance you've received, there may be additional asset management or asset protection concerns that your estate planner will need to address with you.

Birth or Adoption

Welcoming a new child to the family is an unforgettable time. You may feel inspired to look toward the future, and you should. This is a great time to plan to provide for your new family member's future. Due to the new arrival's young age, it is important to consider how you would like to provide for the child and who is going to be in charge of handling the assets while he or she is a minor.

Sullivan & Sullivan Would Be Honored to Help

Whatever life brings you, the attorneys at Sullivan & Sullivan are here to help you weather the storms and celebrate the milestones. We’d be honored to help you ensure your estate plan is up to date to reflect these life changes. Give us a call today!

When a person dies is it necessary to deal with the probate court in Rhode Island?

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.

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