As an heir, you likely have questions about the inheritance process, and your rights.
Overall, if you are entitled to receive an inheritance, you have the right to expect to receive that inheritance ... eventually. While some states attempt to put deadlines on estate settlements, an average estate takes 16 months to settle, and some take years (see Inheritance Timing).
Most estates are settled by an executor appointed by the court (often a family member), under a court-supervised process known as probate. The executor has significant discretionary power, but he or she has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate, to follow the law, and to distribute estate proceeds to the rightful heirs.
However, estates must satisfy obligations according to priority (for example, debts take precedence over distributions), so in some cases your inheritance will be less than expected, or even be completely consumed by other estate priorities (which must generally affect all potential heirs proportionately). See Estate Expenses, Fees, and Taxes for more information, and note that for your protection, estate executors must document all estate transactions and make these records available to the courts ... and in some states, must proactively deliver these records in a Final Accounting to the heirs as well.
Your rights as an heir include:
Most states have laws enabling small estates to be settled without full probate, sometimes without any court involvement at all. In such cases, there may be no formally appointed executor, and the heir can directly collect any inheritance to which he or she is entitled, by providing appropriate documentation to the current asset holders.
In New York, full probate is not required for "small" estates: an executor can instead request Voluntary Administration, saving considerable effort and cost.
In NY, an estate qualifies as "small" if the qualified gross value is <$50,000 (value assets as of the date of death; ignore debts).
Assets jointly owned with other people, assets with named beneficiaries (e.g., 401Ks, life insurance policies), and other standard probate exclusions should not be included in this valuation.
NY also provides a family exemption that may exclude up to almost $100,000 of personal property (see NY Personal Property Exemptions).
Note that real property (i.e., real estate) cannot be handled via the small estate process, so if the estate contains real property owned solely by the decedent, you may need to go through probate regardless of overall estate value (see NY SCPA § 1302).
See NY SCPA § 1301.
If the estate qualifies as "small", you can bypass full probate and use voluntary administration to settle the estate:
You can find additional NY small estate forms online (not normally needed).
See NY SCPA Article 13.
You can generate an affidavit for voluntary administration online, or you can fill out the NY affidavit form directly. You will need to include:
File the affidavit with the local Surrogate's Court (see below), and attach:
You will need to get the affidavit notarized before submission.
Estate debts have priority over most distributions, so you should arrange to have all debts resolved before distributing assets using the approaches described on this page. Other than under the Small Estate Set Aside (which eliminates most debts), unpaid estate creditors have the right to sue heirs for the value of any distributions received.
Before paying any debts or making any distributions, be sure to account for any NY Family Entitlements, which typically have priority over everything except expenses of the last illness, funeral charges, and any estate administrations expenses.
If estate solvency is uncertain, an executor should consider going through official probate for the increased creditor protection it offers. Alternately, such uncertainty can sometimes persuade creditors to forgive a portion of debts, since they will want to avoid legal expenses as well, and may prefer to get something rather than nothing.
See also Making Distributions.
Many people ask about using a small estate affidavit without any court involvement, but NY does not support such an affidavit. You must use one of the above methods (or full probate) for handling small estates in NY.
See NYCourts Probate website for additional helpful information.
Finally, note that as an heir, you are NOT responsible for paying the debts of the estate out of your own funds. You do NOT inherit responsibility for paying the debts of parents, for example. If the estate is insolvent (i.e., cannot pay all its bills), then creditors simply end up with less than owed, or even nothing ... as do you.
If an estate ends up being insolvent, and you somehow received a distribution anyway (perhaps through a small estate process), some states allow creditors to sue you to reclaim any amounts they are still owed. So you can't inherit a debt outright, but if you receive a distribution that the estate needed to pay its bills, you may be forced to pay out some or all of that distribution.
EstateExec will likely save the estate thousands of dollars (in reduced legal and accounting expenses, plus relevant money-saving coupons), leaving more funds for distributions to heirs. EstateExec is rated 4.5 stars () on TrustPilot reviews.
You may want to share information about EstateExec with your estate executor, or the original estate owner if still in the planning stage.