After a loved one passes away, you may wonder how their assets and belongings will be handled and transferred. Grieving the loss of a loved one is already difficult, but dealing with the legal estate process to follow can add stress if you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes it can be helpful to seek the help of a trusted estate planning or probate attorney from Legal Sweeney who can guide you through the legal process. Though each estate is different and laws vary by state, there are general ways certain assets and property are transferred after a death.


If there is a Will in place, a specific person is generally listed as executor of the Will. The executor is responsible for locating assets and property of the estate, distributing the assets and property to the specified beneficiaries in accordance with the Will, and paying off debts of the estate. The Will may also appoint a legal guardian of minor children left behind if it is necessary. If there is no Will in place, the court will appoint an executor and assets and property will be distributed in accordance with state laws.


Whether a decedent had a Will or not, the Will or estate must pass through probate court. Probate is essentially the process of legally verifying a Will, appraising the estate and overseeing the administration of the estate. The executor has the duty of filing for probate so that all necessary assets are handled and distributed in accordance with the wishes of the Will, as well as state laws. The probate process can be skipped if there are no assets that are required to be probated.

Real Estate Property

There are a few different ways real estate can be distributed, depending on how the decedent handled the property.

  •         Real estate property listed in a Will can be distributed to the designated heir. If there are more than one heirs, then the heirs can either jointly own the property, or they can sell the property and equally distribute the proceeds.
  •         If the real estate was co-owned as a joint tenancy, then the property will be transferred to the surviving owner after death.
  •         If the real estate is held in a trust with a named beneficiary, then the property is transferred to the beneficiary after the decedent’s death.

Bank Accounts

If bank accounts designated payable-on death beneficiaries to their bank accounts, the accounts will be transferred to the beneficiaries at the time of death. If no beneficiaries were listed, then the accounts must go through probate and the funds will be distributed to heirs chosen in accordance with state law.

Life Insurance or Retirement Accounts

Most investment and retirement accounts, such as a 401(k), will have designated beneficiaries. If a beneficiary is listed, then they will usually need to submit to the brokerage company the decedent’s death certificate and verify how they prefer the funds to be disbursed. If no beneficiaries are named, the accounts are required to go through probate and disbursed accordingly.