The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, Alabama offers a probate shortcut for "small estates." If the property you leave behind at your death is below a certain amount, your estate can use a simplified procedure called "summary distribution" (or "summary probate") to transfer your property more quickly and with less hassle.
In Alabama, an estate can use summary distribution rather than full probate if the estate satisfies certain requirements, including:
Ala. Code § 43-2-692(b).
If the deceased person left behind a surviving spouse, only that spouse can file a petition for summary distribution. If there is no surviving spouse, then any person who inherits property (either under a will, if there is one, or under Alabama's intestate succession laws if there is no will) can file the petition. Ala. Code § 43-2-692(a).
If the estate qualifies, the surviving spouse or inheritor (if there is no surviving spouse) can apply to use Alabama's summary probate proceeding by taking the following steps:
Once you've completed the steps and fulfilled the requirements (the full list can be found in the Alabama Code Section 43-2-692(b)), the probate court will enter an order directing summary distribution. You can then use this order (sometimes along with a copy of the will, if relevant) to claim property that's in the possession of a third party or institution (such as a bank). You can then distribute property to the inheritors.
While this may sound like a lot of steps to take, rest assured that the summary probate procedure is much more streamlined than full probate, and the inheritors will get the property sooner. If your estate qualifies as a small estate, it won't have to jump through many of the hoops of regular probate.
For more help handling an estate in general, see The Executor's Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo). For an introduction to how you can plan your estate to help your survivors, try Estate Planning Basics, by Denis Clifford (Nolo).
For more on Alabama estate planning issues, see our section on Alabama Estate Planning.