If you have recently had a friend or family member pass away, you are probably familiar with the time it takes to settle someone’s estate. You have also probably asked yourself the meaning of the word probate. Probate refers to the process when a judge validates a will and the executor settles the estate.

The executor named in the will handles the probate process in most circumstances. Trying to navigate the probate process can often be overwhelming if you do not know what to expect. Below are some basic steps to help you navigate the process.

File a petition

You will need to file an official petition with the court where the decedent lived at the time of his or her death. You must acknowledge in the petition that you plan to execute the probate process from start to finish. You will need to file a will and a death certificate with the petition. The judge approves or rejects your request at a hearing and opens the probate case.

Mail out notices

Most courts require executors to mail official probate notices to debtors and beneficiaries named in the will. The notices let creditors and heirs know that the estate case is open.

Account for all estate assets

Appraise and present all bank accounts, stocks, retirement accounts, real estate assets and personal belongings to the court if requested. The work involved in this step will vary greatly depending on the wealth of the decedent.

Settle debts

When someone passes away, his or her debt is still due on a monthly basis. Review and settle any outstanding bills. The court will decide which debts you must pay if the estate does not have enough money to cover all outside bills. File federal and state tax returns until the probate process is complete as well.

Distribute assets and close the estate

After you pay the expenses, you must distribute the remaining assets to the beneficiaries named in the will. Once you complete the distributions, you can ask the court to close the probate case.