The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, the District of Columbia 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 probate procedure to transfer your property more quickly and with less hassle.
D.C. offers a procedure that allows inheritors to skip probate altogether. This procedure is informally called "small estate administration." To qualify, the value of all property that's subject to probate must be $40,000 or less. (D.C. Code Ann. § § 20-351 and following.)
Note that even if you own more than $40,000 worth of property, your survivors may still be able to take advantage of the small estate affidavit procedure. That's because under D.C. law, certain types of property don't count, such as:
In other words, even relatively large estates might still qualify as a "small estate."
Below is an overview of D.C.'s small estate procedure. While it sounds like there are many steps, rest assured that the procedure is much more streamlined than full probate. If your estate qualifies as a small estate, it won't have to jump through many of the hoops of full probate.
First, someone has to take charge of the probate process by filing with the probate court a Petition for Administration of Small Estate. This person asks to be appointed as the "personal representative" of the estate. If the deceased person left behind a will, the executor will usually file this application. The petition includes the following:
If the petition is accepted, the probate court issues an order. This order usually appoints a personal representative, and will sometimes require the estate to give notice of the proceeding to creditors. (If this step is required, detailed instructions will be provided, including directions for publishing notice in a newspaper of general circulation.) Sometimes the probate court will also require a verification of assets—in that case, the personal representative will be asked to verify the value of the assets in the estate.
Once you're appointed as the personal representative, you'll have many of the standard duties of an executor or personal representative. For example, you'll use the estate assets to pay any estate debts. After debts are paid, you'll distribute the remaining property to the inheritors.
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 estate planning issues when you live in Washington, D.C., see our section on D.C. Estate Planning.