If the deceased had a basic will or a pour over will, read the will in its entirety. If the will contains a pour over trust or testamentary trust provision, familiarize yourself with how to administer this type of trust. Make a note of any questions you have about the will and discuss them with a probate attorney.
If the deceased had a living trust, read it in its entirety. Review our Living Trust page for more information about how living trusts work.
If the deceased had another type of trust with which you are not familiar, see our page on Other Types of Trusts for more information. Before you attempt to manage any trust, educate yourself about how the trust operates by reviewing several resources. If necessary, consult an estate planning attorney and a
trust company for assistance managing the trust.
Settling Estate If Deceased Did Not Have a Will
If there is no will, called dying intestate, the estate is subject to probate unless it is exempt due to a small estates exemption. If the estate is subject to probate, the court will appoint an administrator to represent the estate and handle its affairs in the same way as an executor named in a will. If the estate is not subject to probate because of a small estates exemption, typically no administrator is formally appointed. Instead, the estate is usually administered by a spouse, sibling, adult child, parent or other close relative. If you become the administrator, do some preliminary research to determine how property is distributed under the intestate succession laws of that state. See Dying Without a Will.
Small Estate Administration
If you are named executor of an estate, it is important to determine if the estate is considered a small estate under applicable state laws. The estate could be considered a small estate for several reasons. If the deceased owned very little property at the time of death, the value of the estate may be small. Even if the testator was very wealthy, if all of his property is transferred by operation of law, such as through joint tenancy, a living trust or to named beneficiaries on his accounts, life insurance policies, etc., his estate may be treated as a small estate because very little property was in the probate estate.
If the estate you are administering is a small estate according to state law, it may be eligible to be transferred without probate or through simplified probate proceedings. For more information on administering a small estate, see Probate of Small Estates.How to Begin the Process of Administering an Estate:Throughout this page, the term executor is also used to refer to a personal representative or administrator of an estate, unless otherwise noted. The term state refers to the state in which the estate will be probated. This is usually the state in which the deceased was domiciled at the time of death. If the deceased owned real estate in multiple states, there could be a probate in all states where such property is owned. See
1. If you have been named an executor, review our Executor Checklist. It lists some of the important steps you may need to take when administering an estate.
2. Go to your local library, bookstore or shop online for a book on how to probate or administer an estate. Find something state-specific that will give you an overview of the applicable probate and estate laws. For a list of guides for executors, go to
Books About Probate. Contact your state or county bar association. They usually provide free probate and estate planning pamphlets for the public.
3. Determine if the estate is one that must be submitted for probate. Unless all the deceasedís assets were titled in the name of a living trust or the estate is exempt from probate based upon a small estate exemption in your state, you will need to submit the estate for probate.
4. Probate is a very technical area of law. You should talk to a probate lawyer before taking any actions that will affect the estate. Most probate attorneys will talk to you for a few minutes without charge so you can find out if the estate is one in which you may need a probate attorney. While you may not need to hire an attorney if it is a small estate and the probate is anticipated to be a simple one, itís important to consult a probate attorney first. Get some preliminary information about whether it is feasible to handle the probate on your own or whether youíll need the limited or full involvement of an attorney.
5. Arrange your schedule to allow adequate time to take all the actions required to probate or settle the estate. Settling an estate can take a minimum of six months and sometimes several years. If the estate is subject to probate, the amount of time you will personally devote to estate administration will be even greater. Make sure you have enough time to do everything required of an executor, including meeting legal deadlines and creating estate administration paperwork that is detail oriented. Being an executor can be overwhelming. If you are not up to the task of being an executor, see our For Executors page for suggestions.