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 Texas, there are several ways to avoid full probate: small estate affidavit, muniment of title, independent administration, or affidavit of heirship.
If a Texas estate's qualified gross value is <$75,000 and there is no will, you can use the small estate process to settle an estate with almost no court involvement.
To use the small estate process, the following conditions must be met:
In determining whether an estate qualifies as "small", you should value assets as of the date of death, and ignore any unsecured debts. Do not include any assets that would not normally go through probate, such as community property with rights of survivorship, assets with named beneficiaries (e.g., 401Ks, life insurance policies), and other Standard Probate Exclusions. You should also exclude the value of any Personal Property and Homestead Exemptions.
To use the small estate affidavit process:
There is no particular affidavit form mandated by law, but some courthouses require the use of their particular version, so best to identify the court as per below, then use whatever form they prefer.
Regardless of the particular form, a small estate affidavit must:
You will need to get the affidavit notarized before submission.
A Muniment of Title is similar to a Small Estate Affidavit, but has no limit on estate value, and can be used to transfer both personal and real property.
You can use a Muniment of Title if:
To settle an estate via a Muniment of Title:
Check with your local court (see below) to determine if they have a preferred application form, or you can create one yourself based on this example Tarrant County Muniment of Title Form.
The application must state:
Attach a certified death certificate and the original will to the application.
If the estate cannot qualify for a Muniment of Title, you can still save significant time and money by applying for an Independent Probate Administration.
You can settle an estate via Independent Administration if the will specifies that an independent administrator should be used, or if all distributees agree to such an approach.
To settle an estate via a Independent Administration:
Alternately, you can use an Affidavit of Heirship to lay claim to real property (see TX Estates Code § 203). This is typically used in the case where there is no will, and is not as strong a procedure as a muniment of title or an independent administration. The affidavit must be completed by a person who knew the decedent well, but who does not stand to inherit anything. Once the affidavit has been signed, notarized, and recorded in the deed records of the County, it links the real estate title to his heirs. At that point, most title companies and real estate companies will allow the heirs to sell the property.
Before paying any debts or making any distributions, be sure to account for any TX Family Entitlements, which typically have priority over everything except expenses of the last illness, funeral charges, and any estate administrations expenses.
Estate debts have priority over most distributions in turn, so you should arrange to have all debts resolved before distributing assets. Unpaid estate creditors have the right to sue heirs for the value of any distributions received using the approaches described on this page.
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.
If you are using the small estate process and the decedent died intestate (i.e., without a will), then TX Estates Code § 201 will determine who gets what share of the estate.
In Texas, a few counties have dedicated Probate Courts, and the rest handle probate via Constitutional County Courts, with the relevant District Court having jurisdiction for contested matters. You can see this court structure on the Texas Courts website, and you can find the appropriate TX court for a given estate by using the Texas Courts search to select your desired court type and county location (or you can download the Texas court list and search for the relevant court within the estate's county).
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.