Settling Smaller Estates: A Simpler Procedure
Probate is the legal process in which the estate of a deceased person is settled, so that all outstanding debts are paid and properties are distributed to the heirs. It is not uncommon for probate to take two years or longer. The only time the process may be quick, is when the gross value of the estate is relatively small—$100,000 or less, for example, depending on the state. In those cases, each state has some type of expedited probate procedure that may take just a few months to complete, and is generally inexpensive.
Expedited Probate Process
The expedited probate process in Florida is called Summary Administration. It may be used when the entire estate does not exceed $75,000, or if the decedent has been dead for more than two years. Note that the $75,000 does not include the value of the homestead, so with a house, you could have a rather sizable estate and still go through a simplified process. The decedent need not have had a Will in order to use this expedited procedure.
In Florida, Summary Administration has five basic steps:
- The beneficiaries sign a petition prepared by an attorney asking the court to admit the Last Will (if there is one). In the petition, the beneficiaries swear under oath that they know of no later Will, that they know of no debts owed by the decedent, and that the assets listed in the petition are the only ones they know of that belonged to the decedent. Finally, the petition sets forth how the assets should be divided.
- The attorney files the Petition for Summary Administration along with a copy of the paid funeral bill and an affidavit of a long-time acquaintance that the decedent did not customarily accumulate significant debt. The documents are filed with the Clerk of Court where a filing fee is paid.
- The attorney asks the Judge to enter an order declaring the Will (if there is one) to be the decedent’s Last Will and to direct distribution of the assets as requested in the petition.
- If the Clerk and the Judge find everything to be in order, the Judge will sign an Order of Summary Administration. The document will direct the distribution of the assets to the beneficiaries as requested in the petition.
- The Order of Summary Administration is the equivalent of a deed. It is recorded and officially transfers ownership of any of the decedent’s property to the beneficiaries who may then do with them as they wish.
The shorter process is called by different names in different states; every state's definition is unique, and some are complicated. For example, expedited processes are available for:
- California estates worth up to $100,000;
- New York estates where property, excluding real estate and amounts that must be set aside for surviving family members, is worth $20,000 or less;
- Texas estates where the value of property doesn't exceed what is needed to pay a family allowance and certain creditors;
- Missouri estates where the assets left behind are under $40,000 not including insurance, jointly-held assets, homes with beneficiary designations, payable on death accounts, and less debt and mortgages;
- Connecticut estates worth $20,000 or under; and
- Michigan estates worth $18,000 or less.
In some states, if the estate is small enough, you do not even need an attorney to help you through the process; the executor or the beneficiaries can do it on their own with forms provided by the court, sometimes available online. It is usually advisable to use an probate attorney, however, to be certain that all documents comply with the laws of your state.