Simplified or "summary" probate proceedings for small estates are just what they sound like: a simpler version of the regular probate process. If you're an executor (meaning you're tasked with wrapping up an estate), and the estate is small enough to qualify for summary probate, using this shortcut can save you and the inheritors time, money, and effort.
Every state but Delaware and Virginia offers a short probate procedure. Find out more about eligibility requirements below. In addition, over half of the states offer small estates another option: the small estate affidavit, which skips the probate process altogether. To find out whether your small estate needs to go through probate at all, you'll need to check your state's specific laws on small estate affidavits.
Every state has its own rules about when summary probate is available and when formal probate must be used instead. Below are some of the ways that states determine whether your estate can use the summary probate shortcut.
Most states determine eligibility for summary probate by the size of the estate: "small estates" below a certain size can use the short probate procedure, and larger ones cannot. Each state sets its own rules; for example, in New York, an estate worth less than $50,000 qualifies, while in Nevada, the limit is $300,000.
Many states don't count property that wouldn't go through probate anyway—for example, property held in a living trust, in joint tenancy, in a payable-on-death (POD) bank account, or in a retirement account for which a beneficiary has been designated. (For more on which types of property are not subject to probate, see What Assets Must Go Through Probate?) That means that summary probate is sometimes available even if the entire estate is actually quite large.
Instead of setting an exact amount to define a "small" estate, some states look at certain allowances and debts. In these states, estates qualify for the simplified probate process if the estate will all go to the immediate family (as a "family allowance" under state law) and to pay certain high-priority debts, such as the expenses of the funeral and last illness. The logic is that if there's nothing left for other creditors, and no one is arguing about where the money goes, there's no need for a formal probate proceeding.
Several states will also allow summary probate if the deceased person has been dead for a certain period of time—for example, two years in Florida, or five years in Oklahoma. Again, the rationale is that by this time, creditors have probably either been paid or have moved on.
Why would anyone wait so long to start probate proceedings? The situation tends to come up when one spouse dies, and the survivor doesn't take steps to officially transfer property to his or her name. Then, when the second spouse dies, the executor must take charge of two estates instead of one.
Some states have other rules about who can use summary probate. Some conditions imposed by various states include:
Probate procedures, whether they're the formal or summary (informal) kind, vary quite a bit from state to state. Each state has its own rules about what papers must be filed, what notices published, and how long the process takes. That said, here's a general outline of the process you're likely to encounter if you're using the shorter summary probate process.
The executor named in the will, or the surviving spouse or other close family member, files a request (often called a petition) with the local probate court, asking for summary probate. Some states provide fill-in-the-blank petition forms. The petition states that the estate qualifies for summary probate under state law—for example, that the total value of estate assets is under the small estate limit in that state.
Depending on the circumstances, the petition might also need to state that:
Several documents will probably need to be attached to the petition: the will, if any, a list of all heirs (people who inherit under state law if there's no valid will), and an inventory of the property left by the deceased person.
Next, the petitioner may be required to publish a notice of the probate proceeding in a local newspaper. Not all states require this step, which is intended to give creditors a chance to come forward with any claims.
Usually a waiting period follows, designed to give creditors time to file claims, but it's shorter than with regular probate. A month or two is common.
You'll need to submit some kind of document that shows the court that you've paid debts and taxes, and that you're ready to distribute the assets. In some states, you may need a "tax clearance" from the state showing that state taxes have been paid. Then you can close the estate, and you're done.
The answer depends on how complicated your state's procedures are and how much help the state courts offer. If your local court provides forms and instructions (and even better, helpful court clerks), you might be able to get by without any legal advice. But if you have a complicated situation—unusual assets or bickering family members, for example—you'll probably want some expert help. You might just need a meeting or two with an experienced probate lawyer who's willing to answer questions while you do the paperwork yourself. In any case, when you use simplified or summary probate, you'll spend much less on attorney's fees than you would if you needed to conduct a regular probate court case.