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Heather Jones

There have been no substantive changes made to Wisconsin probate law in 2024. There have been some adjustments to estate and inheritance taxes. You should check the local rules and forms for whatever county your probate matter is in case there have been changes to the local procedure if you are self-representing. If you hire an attorney to assist with your probate matter, they will be aware of any changes or updates to the local rules. An important takeaway from this article is that you should always stay on top of your estate planning. Often, people create a will and neglect to update it when they experience significant life changes. Some examples of significant life changes are getting married, having a child or additional children, and receiving a large inheritance that will impact your overall financial status.  

Dealing with the estate of a friend or loved one can be a challenging time in your life. Ultimately there is a great deal of stress and emotion that can be involved for all parties concerned. If you have questions or concerns regarding planning for your family's future after you are gone, Wisconsin probate law, or Wisconsin estate administration in 2024, please give O'Flaherty Law a call. We would be happy to assist you in the process.  

If the estate is larger, over $50,000 in net value, it is a good idea to at least consult with an experienced Wisconsin probate law attorney because an attorney is required for a formal administration. If you think that there may be challenges to the validity of the will that is to be probated or the deceased's estate is large and relatively complex, you should also consult with an attorney to make sure that your friend or family member's last wishes are properly carried out. Read on to learn more about Wisconsin probate law.  

Signing of contract

Wisconsin probate law

Probate is the area of law for each state devoted to ensuring the correct and orderly process of verifying the validity of and carrying out the terms of a will.  

A person either has a will that needs to be probated, or they pass away intestate. Intestate is simply the term used when a person passes away without a will. If a person passes away intestate in Wisconsin, the court will look at the family relationships with the deceased to disburse the person's remaining assets. Usually, if there is a surviving spouse, the assets will go to that spouse. If there is no spouse, the estate will be divided between the children of the deceased. If there is no spouse or children, it will go to the deceased's parents. If the deceased has none of the previously listed relations, the court will look for siblings, nieces or nephews, or grandparents. If none of these family members exist, the estate will go to the State of Wisconsin.  

In Wisconsin, the probate court handles all issues related to probating a will. The probate process is initiated by the personal representative filing a petition with the probate court to validate a will.    

Similar to the variety of routes to a destination, Wisconsin offers two types of probate proceedings - informal and formal. The type of probate proceeding chosen depends on the circumstances of the estate. The main differences between the two lie in the level of court supervision required, the necessity for court hearings, and the time taken to complete the process.

Informal probate is a more streamlined process overseen by the Register in Probate and typically does not require court hearings, making it less time-consuming. On the other hand, formal probate takes place before a circuit court judge and may require court appearances and hearings, making it a more lengthy process.

Informal Probate

Informal probate can be compared to opting for a shortcut to reach your destination. It is a simplified probate process that can be initiated by filing an application with the Probate Registrar in the county of the decedent’s domicile. This process is typically used for estates with clear instructions and no disputes. It is more expedient and straightforward compared to formal probate as it does not require continuous court supervision.

The Register in Probate facilitates the organized transfer of the decedent’s assets to the rightful recipients, making it a smooth and efficient process.

Formal Probate

In contrast, formal probate is akin to maneuvering through a bustling city with intricate road networks. It necessitates several steps, including:

  1. Filing the petition
  2. Providing notice to pertinent parties
  3. Appointing a personal representative
  4. Inventory and appraisal
  5. Payment of debts and taxes
  6. Distribution of assets
  7. Final accounting and closing the estate.

Formal probate is required for any estate in Wisconsin with a value exceeding $50,000, unless the property is exempt from such requirements. The Wisconsin probate process typically takes longer due to the increased level of court involvement and the complexity of the estate.

Appointment of Personal Representatives

The personal representative will identify and administer the estate's assets during the probate process, make sure the required taxes are paid, pay debts and claims on the estate, make any required distributions and determine the surviving spouse's rights, if any, under state law. These are just a few of the duties that the personal representative must fulfil.

In the case where no executor is named, the court will appoint a personal representative, and the estate is deemed ‘intestate’. The personal representative is then entrusted with the responsibility of managing the distribution of the estate in accordance with Wisconsin’s probate laws.

Duties and Responsibilities

Once appointed, the personal representative is entrusted with various duties and responsibilities. These include:

  • Administering the estate
  • Providing notice to creditors and interested persons
  • Ascertaining the heirs of the decedent
  • Settling estate taxes
  • Preparing the final estate account
  • Inventorying the assets of the deceased person
  • Paying any debts and taxes owed by the estate

These duties reflect those of a captain, ensuring the smooth operation of a vessel.

Probate in Wisconsin requires that a personal representative be appointed, either by the terms of the actual will document or by the probate court. The personal representative is typically a family member or close friend who is familiar with the deceased and will be able to assist in carrying out their last wishes in the manner they desire.  


Spousal rights

Wisconsin Estate Administration

Informal administration of an estate in Wisconsin is anything $50,000 in value or under. If the will is challenged, it will have to become a formal administration where the probate court decides on the issues. Milwaukee County requires a personal representative to appear in person for the first hearing on an informal administration. Still, otherwise, almost the entire process can be handled through the mail and costs less overall.  

The formal administration of an estate in Wisconsin is anything over $50,000 in value. An attorney must be hired and represent the personal representative for a formal probate administration. The personal representative can select the attorney. The attorney can charge a fixed flat fee for the work or charge by the hour, but the attorney cannot charge an amount based on a percentage of the estate's value.  

Will Challenges in Wisconsin Probate

If there is a challenge to the validity of a will, there will have to be formal administration, and the personal representative should hire an attorney. There are three significant challenges to a will that can be made by anyone withstanding.  

In order to have the standing to challenge the validity of a will, you must either be a named beneficiary in the current will or a named beneficiary in a previous version of the will but left out of the current will. In rare cases, the probate court may elect to grant standing to a party never named as a beneficiary, such as an ex-spouse or distant relative. There are three main reasons a will might be challenged in the probate court:  

  1. Lack of proper formation-for example, the will was not properly witnessed.
  2. Lack of capacity-for example, the person did not understand that they were creating a will and the subsequent consequences of the document.
  3. Undue influence-the person who created the will was at the mercy of a full-time caretaker who pushed the person for changes the person did not want to make to the will.

Probate Administrative Expenses and Fees

Financial statement with probate expenses

Steering through the probate process inevitably incurs major probate expenses. These expenses include:

  • Court costs
  • Filing fees
  • Attorney’s fees
  • Other professional services

The total cost of probate is contingent upon several elements, such as the complexity of the estate, the time required, and the services necessary.

Similar to docking fees and maintenance costs for a vessel, these expenses are necessary for the appropriate administration of the estate.

Court Costs and Filing Fees

The court costs and filing fees associated with probate can vary. These include an inventory filing fee of $20 for estates valued at $10,000 or less and a fee of 0.2% of assets on the inventory for estates valued at more than $10,000.

This can be compared to paying a fee to navigate through certain waterways - the cost is dependent on the size of your vessel.

Attorney's Fees and Other Professional Services

Aside from court costs and filing fees, the probate process may also involve:

  • Attorney’s fees
  • Administration services
  • Legal services
  • Accounting services
  • Appraisal services
  • Financial planning services

These services provide necessary support and expertise during the probate process, ensuring the estate is properly administered.

Estate Tax Considerations in Wisconsin Probate

While navigating the probate process, one cannot overlook the tax considerations. In Wisconsin, estate tax considerations encompass both state and federal estate taxes. While Wisconsin does not impose a state estate tax, residents may be subject to federal estate taxes if the total value of the estate exceeds certain thresholds.

This can be likened to paying a toll for traversing certain waterways on your voyage.

State Estate Tax

While Wisconsin does not have a state estate tax, residents may be subject to estate taxes in other states if they inherit property from those states. This can be compared to being levied a fee for docking at a foreign harbor. However, the tax rates and exemption amounts vary across states, so it’s important to be aware of the tax implications in each state.

Federal Estate Tax

On the other hand, the federal estate tax applies to all U.S. residents, including those in Wisconsin. This tax is imposed on property transferred from deceased individuals to their heirs. The tax is based on the present value of the estate’s assets, not their original purchase value, and is only imposed on the portion of the estate’s value that exceeds the exemption level set by the IRS.

This can be likened to a toll that’s levied based on the size and worth of your vessel.

Strategies to Avoid Probate in Wisconsin

Family discussing estate planning with an attorney

While probate can be a necessary journey for some estates, there are strategies that can help avoid this process. These include setting up a living trust, making beneficiary designations, and transferring assets during one’s lifetime. Incorporating an estate plan, similar to finding a more efficient course for a vessel, can conserve time and resources for the beneficiaries.

Living Trusts

Establishing a living trust can be compared to charting a course for a vessel. It allows assets to be transferred to a trust during the owner’s lifetime, and these assets can then be distributed to the beneficiaries without going through the probate process. This strategy not only saves time and money but also provides a level of privacy as the terms of a trust are not public record.

Beneficiary Designations and Other Non-Probate Assets

Beneficiary designations and other non-probate assets serve as life-saving rafts that can help bypass the probate process. By designating beneficiaries for certain types of assets, such as retirement accounts or life insurance policies, these assets can be transferred directly to the beneficiaries upon the owner’s death, bypassing the probate process.

Navigating Complex Probate Situations

Despite meticulous planning, steering through the probate process can occasionally become laden with complexities. These complexities can arise from contested wills, estate disputes, or creditor claims. Like navigating through stormy seas, these situations require careful handling and may necessitate the involvement of legal professionals for professional legal advice.

Contested Wills and Estate Disputes

Contested wills and estate disputes serve as storms that can hinder the smooth flow of the probate process. These disputes can arise from a lack of testamentary capacity, exclusion from a portion of the estate, or allegations of undue influence or fraud.

Resolving these disputes often requires court intervention and can significantly prolong the probate process.

Creditor Claims and Estate Debts

Creditor claims and estate debts act as anchors that can burden the estate. During the probate process, creditors are allowed a certain period to file claims against the estate, and the personal representative is responsible for paying valid claims from the estate’s assets.

If the estate lacks sufficient assets to pay all debts, the executor must petition the court to declare the estate insolvent.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the probate rules in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, probate is required for estates with a value of $50,000 or more and is governed by statutory law which requires verifying the authenticity of the Will and distribution in accordance with its terms.

Does a spouse automatically inherit everything in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, a surviving spouse does not automatically inherit everything from their deceased partner. Instead, both spouses are co-owners of the marital property, and one may leave their share to someone other than the surviving spouse if they choose.

What is 851.09 in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, 851.09 is the code for 'Heir', referring to any person, including the surviving spouse, who is entitled to an interest in the property of a decedent through the state's intestate succession statutes.

How do I avoid probate in Wisconsin?

To avoid probate in Wisconsin, create a living trust, name beneficiaries, designate payable-on-death beneficiaries, use transfer-on-death deeds, utilize joint property ownership, and create small estates. Additionally, assign a power of attorney to manage your affairs.

What assets are exempt from probate in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, certain assets are exempt from probate proceedings including joint tenancy property, certain insurance policies and retirement accounts, along with other specific exemptions.

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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