Q: How is my estate administered if I die without a will?
A: Last week, we defined “probate” as a judicial proceeding to administer a decedent’s last will and testament. We also distinguished an “estate administration” proceeding from a probate proceeding by explaining that an administration is the process used when the decedent died without a will. So, the question now is how does the process work if the decedent died without a will?
First, laws regarding property that pass outside of a decedent’s will equally apply to property that is in an estate without a will. Property that is held in joint tenancy with another person will pass to the survivor without the need for an estate administration. Most married couples own their homes in joint tenancy, and many single people hold real estate in joint tenancy with another person. Cars are often titled in two names. These joint assets pass to the survivor without going to court. But there are some caveats. Joint property can still be subject to payment of the decedent’s debts and taxes. In addition, the surviving joint tenant must file an affidavit with the county clerk in order to become the sole owner of jointly owned real estate.
Assets that the decedent held in his name individually, though, will most likely have to go through an estate administration. The process here is virtually identical to a probate proceeding for a person who died with a will. An interested party, usually a spouse or child, files a petition to administer the decedent’s estate and provides notice to all heirs. The court will appoint an administrator of the estate. The administrator will be charged with collecting and providing an inventory of all the decedent’s assets and liabilities. The administrator will be responsible for notifying the decedent’s creditors to present their claims for payment and for paying all just debts. Depending on the size and nature of the estate, the administrator may have to file estate tax returns or final income tax returns.
Ultimately, the administrator will file a final accounting and ask the court for authority to distribute the estate’s assets to the proper persons. Once approved, the administrator will distribute the assets to the decedent’s heirs and the proceeding will be closed. To whom the assets are distributed when there is no will is well settled and complex. We’ll discuss that issue next week.
MATT HOPKINS is an attorney for Lester, Loving & Davies P.C. More information is available at lldlaw.com. Send questions to