What Happens in the Louisiana Probate Process?

And should I avoid it, if possible?

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 4, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney M. Janice Villarrubia

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As a former territory of France, the state of Louisiana has a different history than much of the rest of the country. The state’s history still has a major impact on day-to-day life—Louisiana is the only jurisdiction in the United States that uses a civil law system instead of the common law system.

One of the many effects of this is that the state’s probate process is unique. To start, Louisiana law does not technically use the term ‘probate’, at least not officially. Instead, probate is simply referred to as ‘succession’—and it is the legal process by which a person’s estate is settled and their property is distributed.

Louisiana Successions: Two Types of Probate

Most estates in Louisiana are resolved in one of two ways: succession without administration or succession with full administration.

An unadministered succession is a simplified form of the succession process. It means that no executor is needed to settle the estate of decedent. “Say you’ve got an intact family, kids, a house and a bank account. There’s no reason to administer that,” says M. Janice Villarrubia, an estate planning and probate attorney in Baton Rouge. There are certain standards that must be satisfied for an estate to be settled without administration.

In contrast, administered succession is a more complex process that involves a Louisiana court appointing an official representative to resolve the estate’s outstanding debts and distribute property. “If you have administration, sometimes it’s cumbersome; you may have to pay bills or you may have to liquidate assets, you know that you have a business that’s ongoing,” Villarrubia explains.

Administered succession can be divided into formal and independent administration. Formal administration requires specific actions for every action taken on the estate. “For the executor to pay bills, they have to draft a pleading. They have to advertise it in the paper. Then they have to go to the court and they say ‘Nobody’s objected to this? Yes, now you can pay the electrical bill,’” Villarrubia says. Formal administration is both expensive and cumbersome.

Independent administration affords all the same safeguards that prevent executors from stealing, self-dealing or giving part of the estate away. But it also allows the executor more freedom to pay bills or liquidate stock. What even many lawyers don’t know, however, is that independent administration must be authorized.

If you’re a parent, are you setting [your children] up for success? Are you doing something that’s going to cause your children to fight? I will tell [families] a lot of times, ‘I’m far less concerned about your estate than I am you. Who’s going to take care of you?’

M. Janice Villarrubia

An Alternative to Probate

If you are like most people, you do not want your estate to be settled by a court. To the maximum extent possible, you likely want to leave assets and property to your selected heirs in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Beyond that, you do not want to leave your loved ones with unanswered questions or unclear instructions, as doing so can easily lead to a serious dispute.

However, avoiding probate isn’t always the best approach. “Probate is not very onerous,” Villarrubia says. “Because when a person dies, who’s there to make sure their heirs get their estate? Does somebody come in and say they’re a wife or they’re a child or whoever? The word ‘probate’ means ‘to prove.’ And so if you have a will, you go through probate.”

Probate—specifically, formal administered succession—can often prove to be a long and frustrating process. As it is court supervised, there are many complex rules and procedures that must be followed before assets can be distributed. Another issue is that these court proceedings are part of the public record. This means that you lose your ability to keep much of your estate private.

The primary tool families can use when they wish to avoid probate is to set up a trust. A trust may be a better option if you want to establish a chain of succession, if someone receiving benefits has special needs, or if you want to protect the privacy of the estate or a business owned by the estate.

Some Laws Are Unique to Louisiana

Louisiana’s civil code include some “really beautiful laws that are unique to Louisiana,” Villarrubia says.  One is forced heirship, which requires a portion of an estate to go to an heir who is under the age of 24 or who is mentally or physically incapable of caring for themselves. “If they’re 50 years old and they’re healthy, you don’t have to leave them a nickel. But if they’re 50 years old and they’re ill, you do,” Villarrubia says.

Louisiana is a community property state. Married people should keep this fact in mind, as the state’s community property laws can have an effect on estate planning. The marital portion law requires something to be left to the surviving spouse. “When a rich person marries someone who is not rich and they have lived this lifestyle and they die and don’t leave [the spouse] anything, the law says you’re not going to do that,” Villarrubia says. “You have to leave a part of your estate to them.”

A Lawyer Can Help Navigate the Process

While some of the state’s probate process is immediately complicated, some aspects can appear relatively simple. Even so, it’s important to have a lawyer ready to help. “It’s not important, it’s essential,” says Villarrubia.

An experienced Louisiana estate planning or succession attorney can help at every stage of the process, from making sure your will—even your handwritten last will and testament—is drafted correctly and is valid, to investigating things that seem potentially problematic. “It’s just that extra layer of protection.”

A compassionate lawyer can help you look out for your family in other ways. “If you’re a parent, are you setting [your children] up for success? Are you doing something that’s going to cause your children to fight?” Villarrubia says. “I will tell [families] a lot of times, ‘I’m far less concerned about your estate than I am you. Who’s going to take care of you?’”

When meeting with an estate planning lawyer for the first time, ask informed questions such as:

  • What happens if I don’t have a will? What is intestate succession?
  • How do I provide for my children’s wellbeing when I pass away?
  • Is my estate subject to estate taxes? If so, are there ways to mitigate that?
  • In addition to a valid will, what other estate planning documents, such as a living trust or living will, do I need?

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trusts, and probate and estate administration, or reach out to a law firm for legal advice.

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