Estate Law Questions? Ask an Estate Lawyer.
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I'm currently living in the house and have paid property taxes every year. Must I petition for probate in order to assume ownership?
Unfortunately, if you weren't listed as a joint owner on the deed, then yes, you have to file a formal probate case so that you would be granted the legal authority to execute a new deed from the estate over to yourself personally.
The only way to transfer real estate is by a deed and only the executor would have the authority to sign the deed.
You have to contact the probate court in the county where mother lived and file a formal probate petition along with the will with the clerk's office. Then the clerk will set a hearing date where you will appear and the judge will have a short hearing where he appoints you as the executor of the will. After that, you have to file an inventory of any assets, pay any debts, file any final taxes, complete an accounting of inflows and outflows for the estate, and then distribute the assets to yourself as the only heir. You will have the legal authority to sign a deed from you as executor over to yourself personally once you have confirmed that all debts of the estate have been paid. That is a very brief overview of the probate process and the clerks office normally will have a packet of forms for you along with a guide for the non-attorney.
And no, the probate courts are set up for the non attorney so you don't have to hire one. You may need one for the limited purpose of drafting a deed from the estate over to you personally.