Many states allow "small" estates to bypass standard probate, saving considerable effort and cost.
Different states define "small" differently, but it's important to understand that an estate may qualify as "small" even if it is worth millions of dollars.
In general, when determining whether an estate qualifies as "small", you sum only the values of assets that would normally go through probate, ignoring community property with rights of survivorship, assets with named beneficiaries (e.g., 401Ks, life insurance policies), and other standard probate exclusions.
A number of states also exclude additional asset classes such as a homestead in Texas, vehicles in California, and funeral expenses in Pennsylvania.
The bottom line is that it may be worth it to explore a "small estate" approach to settling an estate, even if at first glance the estate appears too valuable to qualify. Select a state above to see state-specific rules about small estate definition and available settlement approaches.
If the estate does qualify as small, there is often a waiting period, and then you can commonly use one of the following approaches (depending on state):
The details of the above approaches vary quite a bit by state, so its best to select your state from the list at the top of this page and use those specific instructions.
Even if the estate does qualify for one of the small estate treatments, you may want to go through probate anyway for the increased liability protections and protections from creditors it provides.
For example, creditors can take the heirs (or even the executor) to court if debts have not been satisfied and the heirs have inherited property that could have been used to pay the debts (see also Estate Debts and Claim Limitations).
The bottom line is that if even if the estate qualifies for a small estate treatment, you should strongly consider going through full probate if estate solvency is uncertain, or if you are concerned that the estate may become entangled in a lawsuit for any reason (e.g., a disgruntled heir).
See also General Probate.