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The number of formal probate cases filed in Minnesota courts has steadily increased since 2020. Out of the 52,256 cases handled by the North Star State’s probate courts between 2020 and 2022, formal probate accounted for 15,795 cases, which is equivalent to 30.23% of all the cases filed within that period. Miscellaneous probate, on the other hand, totaled over 12,300 cases.

These figures are not surprising at all once you consider the state’s relatively low poverty rates. According to data published by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Minnesota had a 9.3% poverty rate in 2021, the third lowest nationwide. When Minnesotans pass away, they leave behind assets that may have to undergo formal probate procedures.

The presence or absence of a will has a significant effect on how the assets left behind by the decedent will be allocated. Estates in probate can take months or even years to settle, regardless of the presence or absence of a will. This article will go over the probate process, the procedures involved in contesting a will, and what happens when someone passes away without leaving a will. If you’re navigating through probate, consider seeking guidance from a probate lawyer

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Minnesota?

When a Minnesotan dies with a will, the probate will first determine whether the testament left meets the requirements of a valid will before its contents can be executed. A will is a legal document containing the decedent’s wishes on how they want their estate to be distributed. It can only be considered valid if it meets all of the following criteria:

  • The testator must have been at least 18 years old and of sound mind when they made the will. A testator refers to the person making the will.

  • The will must be in writing. In Minnesota, this refers to a will that has been typed or printed. Handwritten wills are generally not accepted unless the will was made in another state that accepts handwritten wills. Oral wills and electronic wills are not accepted.

  • The will must bear the testator’s signature. If the testator is physically unable to sign the will, a conservator appointed by the court for that testator can sign on their behalf.

  • There must be at least two witnesses when the testator signs the will. These two witnesses are also required to sign the will. Minnesota does not forbid interested parties from acting as witnesses to a will.

Notarizing a will is only required for self-proving wills, which is a type of will that allows probate courts to proceed without the need to contact witnesses.

Contesting a Will

In Minnesota, the only ones who can contest a will are the decedent’s heirs (in accordance with intestate succession) and individuals named in the will. A petition must be filed within a year of the decedent’s death, and a legal basis must be provided for challenging the will. The North Star State recognizes the following as legal grounds for a will contest:

  • Lack of Testamentary Capacity or Intent. A will is considered invalid if the testator did not possess the mental capacity to comprehend the full implications of signing it. This can be proved through medical records and testimonies.

  • Improper Execution. This applies when the will fails to meet the legal requirements of a valid will, such as a lack of witnesses or missing signatures.

  • Fraud or Forgery. This is the case when the testator had created or modified the will after receiving fraudulent information. It also applies if any of the signatures in the will had been forged. Conflicting versions of the will can be evidence that there had been an instance of fraud or forgery.

  • Undue Influence. When the testator was coerced or threatened into making or revising the will, then it can be said that they had been under undue influence. This usually involves caregivers or family members of elderly testators.

  • Revoked Will. This can be proven with a valid statement of revocation or by performing a revocatory act, such as burning or tearing the will. This also applies to cases where a more recent will exists that revokes the will in question.

There are multiple possible outcomes to a will contest. If the entirety of the will is deemed invalid by the probate court, then the decedent’s estate will be subject to intestate succession. If only parts of the will are found to be invalid, then the valid parts will still be carried out. If a no-contest clause is enforced, the contesting party may lose their share under the will. 

A previous will may also be enforced if the will being contested is found to have been revoked. Parties in a will contest may also opt for a financial settlement to resolve disagreements.

Probate Process

Minnesota has two probate processes: formal and informal. Formal probate is generally considered more appropriate under the following circumstances:

  • The validity of the will is being contested.

  • The will has ambiguous provisions or clauses that are impossible to fulfill.

  • There is a disagreement between beneficiaries and heirs, some of whom may be vulnerable parties who need protection.

  • The estate has significant assets or debts.

  • There may not be enough assets within the estate to pay all of the debts left behind by the decedent.

  • Assets require different distribution arrangements that may deviate from the provisions of the will.

  • Supervision may be required for certain complex administration procedures.

On the other hand, informal probate is supervised by a probate registrar. It is recommended for straightforward cases where the supervision of a probate judge is not required. If you are uncertain which probate process is right for your situation, consider hiring a probate attorney

Probate Assets vs. Non-probate Assets

Before proceeding with probate, it is important to be aware of which assets are subject to probate. The designation of assets under probate and non-probate is summarized in the table below:

Probate Assets

Non-probate Assets

Real estate and bank accounts

Assets owned in joint tenancy with right of survivorship

Stocks, bonds, business interests, and investments accounts

Assets in a living trust

Vehicles and boats

Accounts with transfer-on-death or payable-on-death arrangements

Retirement assets and life insurance payable to the decedent’s estate

Retirement assets and life insurance policies that designate a beneficiary

Formal Probate Procedures

Minnesota’s formal probate process is presided over by a judge and tends to be more time-consuming. Additional hearings can be scheduled in between the following steps if there are certain issues that the interested parties cannot agree upon.

1. Appointment of a Personal Representative Through Court Petition. Those who wish to initiate formal probate can file a petition once five days have passed since the decedent’s death. They have up to three years to accomplish this step.

2. Notification of Interested Parties. Once the petition has been filed, the court will issue an order for an initial hearing. The filing party must send notice to all parties with an interest in the decedent’s estate, including heirs, beneficiaries, and creditors.

The notice can be handed out by mail or personal delivery, but this must be done at least 14 days before the date of the hearing. If the identity or address of an interested party is unknown, then a notice must be published in a local newspaper once a week for at least two consecutive weeks. Its last publication must be scheduled at least 10 days before the hearing.

3. Court Hearing. During the hearing, the court appoints a personal representative and gives room to discuss any issues raised in the petition. The court also determines whether the estate will be subject to supervised or unsupervised administration.

Under supervised administration, the personal representative must first obtain a court order before acting on behalf of the estate. In other words, the court assumes authority over how the estate will be distributed. On the other hand, the personal representative has more freedom under unsupervised administration, as they are allowed to handle the estate even without a court order.

4. Court Order on the Petition. At the end of the hearing, the court issues an order that finalizes who the representative will be and whether the administration of the estate will be supervised or unsupervised. If there are still issues raised on the petition that need to be resolved, or if the personal representative is contested, then the court may schedule additional hearings.

5. Administration of the Estate. The appointed personal representative can proceed with handling matters of the estate. They are responsible for:

  • Complying with filing requirements and applicable deadlines while managing the estate.

  • Making an inventory of the assets owned by the estate and getting an accurate valuation of such assets. These assets must also be secured to facilitate a smoother administration process.

  • Opening a bank account in the name of the estate, if needed. They are also in charge of closing this account once all estate matters have been resolved.

  • Ensuring all tax returns required from the decedent and the estate are filed on time.

  • Settling estate debts in order of statutory priority, which is listed as follows: (1) creditors; (2) funeral costs; (3) taxes; (4) attorney’s fees; and (5) other expenses related to the individual’s death.

  • Distributing assets to beneficiaries and transferring real property titles according to the instructions left in the will.

  • Accomplishing the Final Account and Proposal for Distribution form. All activities carried out during the administration of the estate must be accounted for. This information will be shared with beneficiaries, and it must show the remaining balance for final distribution.

Informal Probate Procedures

The informal probate process in Minnesota is quite similar to its formal probate process, with the lack of court hearings being the most notable difference.

  1. Appointment of a Personal Representative Through Application. Those who wish to proceed with informal probate must apply with a probate registrar. There are separate forms for those with a will and those without a will.

  2. Decision on Application. After reviewing the documents, the probate registrar will decide whether the estate can undergo informal probate. Certain factors may contribute to an application’s rejection, such as the presence of minor heirs or beneficiaries and the estate’s insolvency.

  3. Sending Notice. Once the informal probate has been granted, the party who wishes to be appointed as personal representative must notify all interested parties. This can be done by mail, personal delivery, or publication.

  4. Appointment of Personal Representative. The probate registrar issues a notice of appointment to all interested parties. The personal representative can proceed with the informal administration of the estate.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Minnesota?

When an individual dies without leaving a will, Minnesota’s intestate succession rules will apply to the distribution of their estate. Non-probate assets are typically excluded from intestate succession unless the named beneficiaries or co-owners have also already passed on.

Spousal Rights

If neither the decedent nor the spouse have children from other relationships, the decedent’s surviving spouse will inherit all of their estate, whether or not they had children together. If either the decedent or their spouse has children from other relationships, then the spouse will get the first $225,000 of the intestate properties plus half of the remaining balance. Everything else will be inherited by the decedent’s children.

The surviving spouse will also receive homestead rights and a one-year family allowance if the estate has insufficient assets to discharge legal claims. The duration can be extended to 18 months if the estate is solvent. The allowance cannot exceed $2,300 per month.

Children’s Rights

As per the provisions of the surviving spouse’s inheritance rights, children in Minnesota can only inherit shares if the decedent’s spouse does not inherit everything.

Biological children and legally adopted children of the decedent are automatically entitled to their shares of the estate under intestate succession. Children born from the decedent’s extramarital affairs will receive a share as long as the decedent’s parental rights were not removed or they were not adopted by someone else. 

Children conceived by assisted reproduction will receive a share if the decedent has consented to the assisted reproduction procedure under state laws. Children conceived under this method must have already been in gestation before the decedent’s death.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

If the decedent had no spouse or children, their surviving parents would inherit everything. Siblings are next in line after parents in Minnesota’s intestate succession, followed by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and next of kin.

Estates With No Heirs

If the probate cannot find a legal heir even after due diligence, then the decedent’s estate will be turned over to the state of Minnesota.

Unique Situations in Minnesota Inheritance Law

Minnesota follows a 120-hour survivorship period under its intestate succession rules. This means an heir must have outlived the decedent by at least 120 hours to receive their share of the inheritance.

A decedent can also give a gift to a relative during their lifetime and have that gift be subtracted from their inheritance, provided either of them acknowledges it in writing. Furthermore, a relative can receive their share regardless of whether they are a U.S. citizen or not.

Does Minnesota Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

As of 2023, only six states still impose inheritance taxes, and Minnesota is not one of them. However, it is one of the states that have their own estate tax on top of the federal estate tax. The exemption cap for Minnesota’s estate tax is currently set at $3 million, which is roughly four times lower compared to the $12.92 million exemption cap for the federal estate tax.

Gifts of more than $17,000 per recipient per year made within the last three years before the decedent’s death may be subject to estate tax. If the decedent has left behind a small business, then their estate can qualify for a $2 million deduction from their Minnesota estate tax. The following requirements must be met:

  • The annual gross income of the small business must have exceeded $10 million in the year prior to the decedent’s death.

  • The small business must have been owned by the decedent or their spouse for at least three years before the decedent’s death. They must have also been participating in the business.

  • The small business must have been left behind to an heir who had significant participation in the management of the business at least three years prior to the decedent’s death.

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Minnesota

Minnesota Judicial Branch

The website of the Minnesota Judicial Branch is rich in legal resources. It provides information on where you can find the nearest court, court fees, court holidays, and the expected code of conduct within court premises. You can also search for case records and download forms you need for your case.

Central Minnesota Legal Services

Central Minnesota Legal Services has been serving low-income community members for more than four decades. Its legal aid is available in 21 counties, and the organization handles matters related to simple wills, health care directives, and powers of attorney. You can get in touch with CMLS by calling their offices at the following locations:

  • Minneapolis/Anoka: (612) 332-8151.

  • Willmar/St. Cloud: (320) 253-0138.

Minnesota State Bar Association

Established in 1883, the Minnesota State Bar Association continues its mission of championing justice and equality. MSBA has adopted and carried on with the Wills for Heroes program since 2007, which connects first responders and their spouses with a volunteer attorney who can help with estate planning and will preparation. Firefighters, EMTs and paramedics, police and correction officers, and spouses or widows of the aforementioned are eligible for the program.

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