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  • Inside Track
    August 02, 2023

    Legal Research 101: 7 Sources for Planning Probate

    A probate case can be confusing and intimidating to those encountering the court system for the first time. Law librarian Carol Hassler discusses the resources that can help you guide your client through the probate process.

    Carol Hassler

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    Aug. 2, 2023 – Administering an estate in probate court is a process where final decisions are made to distribute a person’s money and property after death.

    For some people, handling the estate of a loved one may be their first interaction with the court system. It can be confusing or intimidating, and often takes place during an emotionally fraught time for those involved. Guiding your client will take skill and care.

    Probate Cases in Court

    Probate court determines how property is transferred. This could include cash, real estate, vehicles, retirement accounts, personal property, or business assets.

    Carol Hassler Carol Hassler is a law librarian at the Wisconsin State Law Library and a 2022 Wisconsin Legal Innovator. She is a member of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin (LLAW), whose members regularly contribute to InsideTrack.

    A personal representative exercises management and control of an estate during the probate process. The personal representative holds the responsibility for meeting legal requirements and making sure that taxes are paid. An attorney can help guide personal representatives through the probate process and emerge successfully on the other side.

    Informal administration is the most common way to handle an uncontested estate in Wisconsin. Formal administration of an estate is a judicial proceeding handled with attorney representation, but informally administered estates can go through probate without legal representation. Estate administration can begin as a formal case, or a case can be converted to a formal matter while in probate court.

    The Law: Resources

    Look to Wisconsin Probate & Estate Planning Statutes from State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE®, ​for a detailed compilation of relevant Wisconsin laws.

    Wisconsin’s probate code is generally found in Wis. Stat. chapters 851-879. Informal probate administration is a frequently used procedure, detailed in Wis. Stat. chapter 865. Wisconsin’s laws of intestate succession are outlined in Wis. Stat. chapter 852.

    Wisconsin does not have gift or inheritance tax law, so researchers should look to federal law for information on taxes for property transfers. Turn to Internal Revenue Service guides on estate and gift taxes for quick overviews of the law and procedures.

    Local probate court rules can contain valuable information about timing and filing requirements. Find local court rules on county court websites, or use the State Bar’s list of Wisconsin Circuit Court Rules on to quickly find rules for individual counties.

    Where to Find Forms

    The Wisconsin Court System creates and updates many forms for both informal and formal probate. Use checklists to navigate which forms are needed for each process. Look for guides from county registers in probate, like Dane County’s formal and informal administration checklists, which make it easy to see at a glance which forms are needed.

    Many books on estate planning and probate administration include sample forms, which can save time and money by providing models for a range of circumstances.

    You can also find forms for estate planning and probate from State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE. This online forms library includes forms for motions and notices and more.

    Available Free Guides

    There are several free guides online which can be used as a quick reference tool, or can be shared with clients to help demystify the probate process.

    The Wisconsin Register in Probate Association updates A Personal Representative’s Guide to Informal Estate Administration in Wisconsin. At almost 100 pages, this book includes helpful definitions for clients overwhelmed with legalese, an intestate succession chart, and an overview of forms and checklists that may be used during the informal probate process.

    Turn to guides created by local register in probate offices for checklists of forms to use and frequently asked questions. Take a look at county register in probate webpages for handy resources like tables of fees and court rules. For example, Waukesha County’s Probate Procedures and Practice Tips gives detailed answers to common questions, like scheduling a hearing, requests for extending time, or handling wills.

    Family Estate Planning in Wisconsin, published by the U.W.-Madison Division of Extension, covers a number of estate planning topics. This publication is a useful survey of estate planning tools and techniques, and provides a broad overview of probate and property distribution.

    Wisconsin Judicial Benchbooks are Quick Reference Guides

    Wisconsin Judicial Benchbooks Vol. V: Probate, Guardianship, and Mental Health

    The Wisconsin Judicial Benchbook, Vol. V: Probate, Guardianship, and Mental Health is available from PINNACLE in print and in electronic format through the State Bar’s Books Unbound.

    The 5-volume set of Benchbooks are quick practice aids, laid out in a sparse outline format that is quick to skim. Volume V covers formal and informal probate procedures, the formalities and common issues surrounding wills, the laws of intestate succession, requirements for personal representatives, and more. Use this Benchbook as a quick reference guide to relevant laws, cases, and court procedures.

    Making a Timeline: Use Checklists

    A probate case begins when paperwork is filed with the court, but it pays to construct a detailed timeline early in the process to ensure important deadlines are met. In addition to quick county guides, practice-oriented books are excellent sources for checklists you can easily convert into an outline for a particular case. Turn to a treatise for a detailed look into probate procedures and deadlines.

    Published CLE seminars often include practice-oriented checklists and simplified steps. In the Wisconsin State Law Library’s collection, turn to National Business Institute books for seminar outlines and handouts. In Wisconsin Estate Administration From Start to Finish (2021) and Wisconsin Probate Process: In 7 Simple Steps (2022), you’ll get a summary of key deadlines, sample forms for keeping track of critical dates and forms, and tips for guiding clients through the process.

    Overviews: Treatises

    Online guides are terrific sources for common issues in probate court, but there are many times when you need deeper analysis.

    PINNACLE’s Wisconsin Probate System: Forms and Procedures Handbook is a useful one-volume practical overview of handling a probate case from start to finish. This book walks you through client intake all the way through closing the estate and understanding taxes. Get forms to use for opening and closing the estate, and see sample tax forms.

    Death in Wisconsin, published by Thomson Reuters, is a single volume from the Wisconsin Practice Series. This book functions as a one-stop resource for all things post-death. Learn about estate administration issues, from the first steps in handling a decedent’s affairs all the way through estate administration.

    The chapter on body disposition and funerals can answer many questions about human remains, funerals, and cemetery law. A lengthy appendix includes several example and statewide forms that are referenced throughout the book.

    Page on the Law of Wills, available to read as an eBook with a Wisconsin State Law Library card, is a valuable source for understanding will construction as well as probate and will contests. The seventh volume in this set of books includes sample forms.

    Focusing Your Research

    Sometimes a checklist is not enough. Turn to treatises to get a head start on specific estate administration issues like jointly held accounts, will contests, or homicide. The books listed here are just a sample – ask a law librarian for help finding more information.

    Get a closer look at will contests in Death in Wisconsin, or in more general treatises that specialize on the topic. Will Contests, published by Thomson Reuters, is a detailed look at deconstructing issues with wills, with some chapters structured to reflect the typical flow of a court case.

    Digital property and accounts may be best addressed during the estate planning process, but questions can arise during probate. Get a quick education on the laws surrounding digital property with Eckhardt’s Workbook for Wisconsin Estate Planners from State Bar PINNACLE.

    Articles are terrific sources for this constantly evolving topic, like these recent articles, available to read online or via HeinOnline with a Wisconsin State Law Library card.

    For tax treatment, use CCH AnswerConnect, a database available to you with a Wisconsin State Law Library card. Consult the U.S. Master Tax Guide for analysis of estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer taxes; or dive into the estates, gifts, and trusts topics for micro-analysis of state and federal laws. For another point of view, learn about federal tax law in f​ederal income taxation of estates, trusts, and beneficiaries in a nutshell, available to read as an eBook with a Wisconsin State Law Library card.

    How to Learn More

    You can find CLE sessions on probate, including those for handling basic probate as well as probate skills for paralegals, from PINNACLE. Use this link to the Wisbar’s Marketplace to find the latest session.

    If you need help getting started with your research or pinpointing a perfect checklist to streamline your case, contact a librarian! We can help you to find the best resources for you and your unique legal research needs.

    Law librarians are available at these Wisconsin libraries:

    Wisconsin State Law Library
    608) 267-9696

    University of Wisconsin Law Library
    (608) 262-3394

    Ray & Kay Eckstein Law Library - Marquette University Law School
    (414) 288-3837
    Online reference desk email form

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