There's no automatic process for probating an estate when someone dies in Ohio. Someone must take steps to file a will with the probate court or otherwise open a probate case. But what happens if no one does?
The answer depends in part upon whether the deceased person (decedent) is known to have left a will. If they did, and an heir has the power to submit it for probate but without good cause intentionally fails to probate the will within a year of the death, they could lose their right to inherit under the will. If there is no will, and a person (like a close family member) would be entitled to administer the estate, they are obligated to open a probate estate within a reasonable time. If they do not, they could lose their priority to administer the estate..
One risk of failing to settle an estate is that estate assets cannot be properly transferred to others, clouding the title. Dispossessed heirs or creditors may have a legal cause of action against a purchaser of assets that were not properly probated, or against the person who sold those assets "out from under" the estate.
Even if no one improperly transfers estate assets, assets may nonetheless be lost if the estate is not probated. A good example is a piece of property, like a residence, on which there is a mortgage. Payments need to continue being made on the mortgage even after the decedent's death. Opening a probate estate means that an administrator will be appointed and have the authority (and responsibility) to pay estate debts. Without the appointment of an administrator or executor, those debts may go unpaid, and the property could be repossessed or foreclosed on.
Usually, Ohio probate estates are opened by a relative of the decedent or a beneficiary of the will. But they may also be opened by creditors who are owed money by the estate or by an attorney on behalf of a beneficiary. If family members or beneficiaries fail to open a probate estate, a creditor may petition to do so and the probate court will appoint an administrator. So efforts by relatives to avoid the probate process by simply doing nothing are likely to fail, and could even be costly.
Going through probate may seem like unnecessary trouble if there are few assets or no assets in the decedent's estate. If that is the case, the estate likely qualifies for a streamlined procedure known as the small estate process. A small estate in Ohio is one that is valued at $35,000 or less. Similarly, if an estate is valued at $100,000 or less and the decedent had a will that left all assets to a surviving spouse, the estate may be released from administration. If the estate is valued at less than $5,000, no formal probate at all may be necessary, but instead a summary release may be filed.
The bottom line is that it's best to take whatever action is necessary to settle an estate rather than ignore it and hope that no one will notice. Even if an estate doesn't qualify for the small estate process, an experienced Ohio probate attorney can guide you through what you need to do to settle the estate promptly. Because the attorney's services are considered a benefit to the estate, the attorney is paid from estate funds, not from the pocket of the person who opens or administers the probate estate. If there are few heirs and no disputes, the estate will likely settle quickly and without incident, and heirs can receive their inheritance confident that it has been properly distributed.