Losing a loved one is never easy. After taking some time to grieve and deal with immediate matters, the next step for most is estate settlement. The steps to settling an estate are similar, whether or not the deceased left a will; however, without a will, the settlement process is often significantly longer and more expensive.
Here, we’ll cover the necessary steps of settling an estate and how it varies based on whether there was a will in place. We’ll also discuss the importance of working with trusted advisors who are knowledgeable about state probate laws.
Steps to Estate Settlement
1. Determine Whether There Is a Will
Ideally, the deceased left a will, though its location isn’t always obvious. Check desks, filing cabinets, safes and anywhere else important documents may be kept. If there is a safety deposit box, that should be checked as well. If you don’t have a safety deposit box key and your name isn’t on the box, you may need a court order; however, you can usually check the box solely for the purpose of looking for the will.
Regardless of whether there is a will, your next step will be making an appointment with the probate court in the county where the deceased lived.
2. Open the Estate
To open the estate, you (or the executor, if it is another party) will need to make an appointment with your local county probate court. You will need to take:
- The will (if there is one).
- An original or certified copy of the death certificate.
- The names and addresses of all family members, even those not named in the will.
- Copy of obituary.
The probate clerk you meet with will assist you in preparing a petition to open the estate. The clerk will also advise you regarding which notices are required and who receives those notices.
Note: There is also a simplified probate process in South Carolina for estates with a value of $25,000 or less.
3. Deliver and Publish Notices
The clerk will tell you which family members need notices. You will also need to publish a notice in a newspaper in the county where the deceased lived. The notice should run once per week for three consecutive weeks. This notifies creditors that they must present claims against the estate within eight months from the date of publication.
4. File an Inventory and Appraisal
The inventory and appraisal is a list of all the deceased’s probate assets at the time of death. Be sure to report the current value of assets accurately, as it could impact the tax consequences for beneficiaries.
Some assets do not typically need to go through probate, regardless of whether there is a will in place. These include:
- Property and funds in a living trust.
- Life insurance proceeds.
- Retirement plan benefits.
5. Pay Estate Expenses
The executor (also referred to as a personal representative) pays off any legitimate claims against the estate along with other bills, such as funeral expenses and taxes due.
6. Transfer Property to Beneficiaries
After the waiting period passes for creditors to make a claim against the estate, property is transferred to the beneficiaries.
This is where processes diverge based on whether or not there is a will. If there is a will, assets are transferred according to the will, unless there is some reason for the will to be considered invalid. If there is no will, assets are transferred according to the rules of intestate succession.
With intestate succession, assets are typically transferred to spouses and immediate blood relatives, regardless of the wishes of the deceased. Intestate succession can be messy and time-consuming, leading to expensive attorney fees.
Further, the lack of a will causes the deceased and their family to relinquish control over important decisions. For example, without a will, guardianship over minor children is determined by the court rather than by the deceased.
How to Minimize Costs and Simplify Probate
Proper estate planning can significantly reduce costs and simplify probate, and financial tools such as trusts can ensure your assets pass to the people or charities you choose.
To ensure your financial tools are set up properly, it is critical to consult experienced advisors such as estate planning attorneys, accountants and trust advisors, such as those at Arthur State Bank.
Trust advisors at Arthur State Bank are familiar with the probate process in South Carolina and can coordinate with your other advisors to ensure your estate is set up according to your wishes. Arthur State Bank’s trust advisors can also serve as estate executors, who further ensure that estate planning goals are met.
Estate planning is critical to minimizing costs and ensuring your assets transfer smoothly to your beneficiaries. Contact us today to learn more about our estate planning services.