Settling Small Estates (NC)

Updated Apr 5, 2024
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In North Carolina, small estates can bypass probate via small estate affidavit, and any estate where the surviving spouse is the sole heir can petition for Summary Administration. Regardless of estate size, probate is not required if an estate contains only assets exempt from probate.

Small Estate Definition (NC)

In North Carolina, an estate qualifies as "small" if the value of relevant personal property is <$20,000, or <$30,000 if the small estate affidavit applicant is a surviving spouse who will inherit everything (see Family Allowances below).

In calculating estate value, you should value assets as of the date of death, subtracting the amounts of any associated liens or encumbrances, but ignoring any unsecured debts. Do not include real property (i.e., real estate), and do not include assets that would not normally go through probate, such as community property with right of survivorship, assets with named beneficiaries (e.g., 401Ks, life insurance policies), and other standard probate exclusions.

Small Estate Process

To use the small estate process,

  • The estate must qualify as "small" as per above
  • At least 30 days must have passed since the death
  • An application for appointment of personal representative cannot have been made

If the above conditions are met, you can submit a small estate affidavit form to the appropriate court (see below), then use the certified affidavit to collect the estate property in order to settle the estate in the normal manner: pay any family allowances, pay all debts, and distribute remaining assets to heirs.

Within 90 days of filing the small estate affidavit, you must file a follow-up affidavit of collection, disbursement, and distribution with the court, confirming that you collected the assets, and specifying how you disbursed them.

See NC G.S. § 28A-25-1.1 for estates with wills, and NC G.S. § 28A-25-1 for estates with no wills. See also NC G.S. § 28A-25-3.

Summary Administration

While not strictly a small-estate procedure, if the only person entitled to inherit from the estate is a surviving spouse, then the spouse can submit a Petition for Summary Probate Administration, which enables the entire estate to be transferred to the spouse with minimal process. Note that this transfer includes debts: the spouse will become personally responsible for resolving any estate debts (and likely was already).

See NC G.S. § 28A-28.

Estate Settlement Considerations

Before paying any debts or making any distributions, be sure to account for any Family Entitlements in NC, which typically have priority over everything except expenses of the last illness, funeral charges, and any estate administrations expenses.

Even if the estate does not go through probate, you may still be entitled to NC Executor Compensation, and this compensation also has priority over most estate debts.

Estate debts have priority over most distributions in turn, so before distributing assets you should resolve any estate debts. If the estate makes any distributions beyond amounts set aside for family entitlements, unpaid creditors have the right to sue the recipients for repayment using those excess distributions. Consequently, even if the settlement process does not require you to publish a Notice to Creditors, you may want to follow NC probate rules for finding estate debts, since doing so may limit the time creditors have to pursue repayment.

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.


In North Carolina, the local Superior Court handles wills and estate probate. If you are using EstateExec and you enter the decedent's county of legal residence on the Decedent tab, you will see a direct link to the appropriate Superior Court here.

Additional Information

If your estate doesn't qualify for a small estate approach, or you're simply interested in exploring standard probate, take a look at Probate in NC.

And since probate is just the court-supervised subset of winding up a person's affairs after death, you'll probably want to check out our Complete Guide to Estate Settlement in NC.

Finally, in case you're interested, details about handling small estates in other states can be found here:

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