What Is a Small Estate Administration Process?

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When a person dies, his or her will is submitted to the probate court. The process that follows includes having the will probated, notifying heirs and creditors of the decedentís passing, paying off debts and distributing the property to the heirs or beneficiaries. This process can often be long, exhaustive and expensive. This is why many people use the small estate administration process.

Small Estate

Small estate administration is a simplified court procedure that is an alternative to the longer probate process. It is available when the person who dies did not own that much in assets. There is often a limit to the value of the property, such as $25,000 or $100,000. This procedure might not be available if the person who died owned real property or it may only be permitted for the personal property and not the real property. This procedure asks the court to allow you to divide and distribute their property to people who either have a legal right to inherit or listed in the testatorís will.

Process of Small Estate Administration

The small estate administration usually begins by the person asking the appropriate probate court to admit a will. The individual who does this is usually the person named as the executor. If there is no will, then an adult heir may ask for the probate case to be opened. An heir is someone who stands to inherit by law based on the default rules of the laws of intestacy. In some cases, a creditor may ask for the case to be opened. The probate court is the court in the county where the decedent had his or her legal residence before passing away.

There may be a certain waiting period before the case is opened. For example, in Tennessee the small estate procedure is commenced 45 days after the decedent passed. The state rules may say that the small estate administration process can only be commenced if there is no letter testamentary or of administration filed.

The court petition may need to include specific information required by state law, such as whether the decedent had a will, whether there are any unpaid debts, a list of unpaid debts and information regarding the creditor, an itemized list of the property the decedent owned, insurance information related to the decedent, the current individual or entity that has possession of the property, a list of heirs at law or beneficiaries along with their contact information, relationship and age, whether notice to creditors will be given pursuant to the state law and the will if one was left. Typically, the will that is submitted to the court must be the original. The person making the petition must usually sign under penalty of perjury as to the stated facts. The filing fee to the court must also be paid. The person making the petition may need to provide notice to certain individuals and entities of the filing. The court may also require that a bond be paid, but this requirement can sometimes be waived.


Many states have an affidavit process as part of the small estate administration. The beneficiary completes an affidavit stating that there are no debts owed and that he or she is the rightful beneficiary of an asset. The clerk may make copies of this affidavit. He or she then takes this affidavit and any court order to the holder of the asset to receive the property in the individual or entityís possession.

Non-Probate Distribution

There may be assets that a person owns that do not become part of the probate process. For example, a person may own property as joint tenants with the right of survivorship that passes outside of the probate process as the surviving owner absorbs the ownership interest of the other owner. Beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies also pass outside the probate process so long as the estate is not named as the beneficiary. The state act regarding the small estate administration process may limit the definition of what is considered property owned by the decedent which may reduce the aggregate value of the estate.

Legal Assistance

Individuals who are uncertain about what they may stand to inherit or whether they may qualify for the small estate administration may wish to contact a probate lawyer for assistance. He or she may be able to explain a personís legal rights to him or her and discuss options about how to proceed with the case.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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