Small Estate Laws

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What is a Small Estate?

An estate is classified as a small estate if the total valuation of all the assets is less than an amount prescribed by law, which is similar to how a small trust is determined to be small.  This amount may vary from state to state.  With small estates, formal probate or court estate administration hearings may not practical since there are very little assets to be distributed.  For example, the estate holder may only be leaving behind a car or a small amount of monetary funds.

Therefore small estates usually qualify for a simplified proceeding for distribution upon the person’s death.  These streamlined proceedings generally require much less paperwork, take less time, and cost less than a full probate proceeding.  Instead of a formal court proceeding, the estate will be distributed according to a small estate affidavit prepared beforehand by the person or their estate planning attorney

What are the Requirements for Small Estate Proceedings?

The requirements for small estates vary widely from state to state.  In general, in order for an estate to be classified as a small estate, the total value of the estate must be below a certain amount set by the state.  For example, in the following states a small estate cannot be worth more than:

• California: $100,000
• Texas: $50,000
• New York: $30,000
• Florida: $60,000
• Illinois: $100,000

Therefore, a California estate that is worth more than $100,000 must be distributed using standard probate procedures.  California estates that are worth less than $100,000 can be distributed according to the simplified small estate distribution procedures.

When can the Small Estate Affidavit be filed?

Most states require the small estate affidavit to be filed during a certain time period.  For example, in most states small estate administration may only begin 30-40 days after death.  The affidavit must usually be filed along with an appraisal and inventory of the decedent’s belongings and assets.

Once the affidavit and related paperwork has been filed with the appropriate court, the decedent’s personal representative may then begin giving notice to the beneficiaries and debtors. 

After they have received notice, the estate will may then be immediately distributed and the assets disbursed to the entitled persons or entities.  The decedent’s representative should retain copies of the affidavit and any court writings for future reference.  However, an estate holder may wish to begin estate planning well in advance in order to anticipate future issues.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Small Estate Administration?

Small estates administration is usually accomplished through a streamlined process that does not require a formal court hearing.  In many instances, such summary estate administration hearings do not require a lawyer.  However, you may still wish to consult with a lawyer if you need advice on the classification of your estate.  Also, if a dispute arises over the administration of a small estate, an attorney can help represent your interests if a lawsuit becomes necessary.   

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Last Modified: 12-07-2015 06:15 PM PST

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