Settling Small Estates

Updated Apr 5, 2024
Show Table of Contents Courthouse for estate probate

After someone dies, his or her estate must be settled (e.g., debts resolved, assets distributed). This page explains province-specific procedures for settling a small estate without going through the full court-supervised process known as probate.

General Small Estate Definition

Different provinces 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 property owned with rights of survivorship, assets with named beneficiaries (e.g., RRSPs, life insurance policies), and other standard probate exclusions.

It may be able to bypass probate even if the estate isn't officially "small", so it's 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 province below to see province-specific rules about small estate definition and available settlement approaches.

Select specific province:
(or click map)

General Settlement Approaches

If the estate does qualify as small, then you can commonly use one of the following approaches (depending on province):

  • Court Order: Under this approach, you obtain a simple court order that allows you to settle the estate.
    1. Submit a small estate application to the court and receive a court order enabling you to settle the estate
    2. Obtain possession of estate assets by presenting the order to current custodians of the assets
    3. For certain property (e.g., vehicles) you must also get the title transferred with the appropriate government agency
    4. Resolve any estate debts if appropriate
    5. Distribute remaining estate assets to the rightful recipients
  • Public Trustee: Some provinces allow the public trustee to settle a small estate for you. Under this approach, you simply request that the public trustee handle the estate (you can be refused). The downside to this approach is that you lose all control.
  • Unofficial: You may be able to avoid probate if the existing asset custodians allow you to take possession of the assets without official court documents such as a probate Grant of Letters. However, if the estate contains real property (i.e., real estate), or if a custodian such as a financial institution requires an official executor appointment, then probate will be required.

The details of the above approaches vary quite a bit by province, so it's best to select your province from the list at the top of this page and use those specific instructions.

Cautions

Even if the estate does qualify for a small estate treatment, you may want to go through standard probate anyway.

Probate generally offers an executor increased liability protection, and increases protections from creditors. 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).

Moreover, asset holders (including financial institutions) are sometimes reluctant to participate in a small estate process, and refuse to relinquish assets without the documentation associated with a normal probate process (e.g., Letters of Authority, Letters of Administration, Letters Testamentary, etc.).

The bottom line is that even if the estate qualifies for a small estate treatment, you should consider going through full probate anyway, especially if estate solvency is uncertain, or you are concerned that the estate may become entangled in a lawsuit for any reason (e.g., a disgruntled heir).

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.

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 every province.

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

Copyright © 2014-24 EstateExec