How To Make the Probate Court Process Easier

With proper estate planning, the probate court can be avoided. However, even if someone has failed to plan ahead to prevent their estate from going through the probate court, it is sometimes possible to take probate “short-cuts” which lessen the burden of the probate process. Whether this can be done depends greatly on the size of the estate and who the beneficiaries/heirs of the estate are.

For certain very small estates, three such “shortcuts” can be utilized to completely avoid going to probate court. Paycheck Transfer - if the only assets in the estate are wages and/or fringe benefits, these assets may be transferred without probate if the deceased’s employer had a contract with or a signed statement from the deceased employee directing the employer to pay someone remaining wages and/or fringe benefits upon the employee’s death. Automobile Transfer - if someone dies leaving a vehicle(s) and the total value of the vehicle(s) is less than $60,000.00, that person’s heir(s) can transfer title to the vehicle(s) into their name(s) without going through probate. This procedure is only available if no probate estate has or is to be opened, and the heir(s) must swear to this on Form TR-29 which must be filed with the Michigan Secretary of State. Personal Property Transfer - there is a procedure to obtain the wearing apparel and up to $500.00 cash of a person who has died without first obtaining probate court approval. If you are the spouse, child or parent of a dceased person, you are entitled to any such items held by a hospital, nursing home, morgue or law enforcement agency upon furnishing identification and a signed affidavit, so long as no probate administration has been initiated.

If an estate’s value is $17,000.00 or less, after deduction of funeral and burial expenses, then the assets of the estate can be distributed to that person’s heirs or devisees with only minor probate involvement. This can be done by either 1) filing a petition with the court or 2) by preparing an affidavit. Either way you should utilize court approved forms to ensure the documents contain the necessary language. When using the petition method, a petition is filed with the court attesting to the fact that someone has died, stating that their assets are $17,000.00 or less, telling who paid the funeral/burial expenses and how much they were, and requesting the court to order the funeral expenses to be reinbursed and the balanceof assets to be distributed to the surviving spouse or heir(s). The petition is filed with the probate clerk and the process takes a few hours. The main benefit of the petition method is that 63 days after the court’s order, the person receiving the assets is no longer responsible to pay any unsatisfied debts of the estate. This procedure can be initiated immediately, without any waiting period. You can also use an affidavit to distribute an estate less than $17,000.00. Twenty-eight days after someone has died, an affidavit can be presented to someone possessing property of the deceased person, which requests distribution of that property. The affidavit must provide the same information that is set forth in the petition. With the affidavit method, you do not have to visit the probate court. However, unlike the petition method, there is no protection from creditors after 63 days, so you may have to give your inheritance back, and you have to wait 28 days before you can initiate this procedure.

“Total Allowances” Small Estate. When you die, Michigan law preserves a portion of your assets for your spouse and/or minor children. This protection is provided by what are called the home-stead, family and exempt property allowances. The homestead allowance of $17,000.00 can be paid to your surviving spouse or minor children. An exempt property allowance is available to a survivng spouse and minor child as well. The maximum exempt property allowance is 20,000.00, and can be paid in one lump sum or in monthly installments. The state also allows you to exempt up to $11,000.00 of personal property from the creditors of your estate. This allowance is available for either your survivng spouse or children, be they a minor or adult. If there is insufficient personal property to satisfy the allowance, other assets, including cash, can be used to make up the difference. If the allowances, plus administration costs, funeral and burial expenses, and last illness medical bills equal or exceed the value of your estate, then your estate qualifies as a Total Allowances Small Estate. Although the estate is opened in the traditional manner (i.e. - by petitioning the court) it can be closed in a much quicker fashion. After filing the appropriate initial documents and giving the appropriate notices, the assets of the estate can be distributed immediately to the persons entitled to the allowances. The estate is then closed by filing a few simple documents.