The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, New York offers a probate shortcut for "small estates." If the property you leave behind at your death is below a certain amount, New York allows the property to be transferred more quickly and with less hassle.
New York offers a simplified probate process for small estates, called "voluntary administration of small estates" or "settlement of small estates without court administration. This simplified probate process is often also known as "summary probate" or "summary administration.")
With voluntary administration, the probate process is much more streamlined than full probate, saving your loved ones significant time, probate fees, and potentially lawyer fees.
You can use voluntary administration (summary probate) in New York if the gross value of the personal property in the estate (that is, all property except for real estate) is less than $50,000. N.Y. Surr. Ct. Proc. Act § 1301.
If the estate is a little larger than $50,000 it might still qualify. That's because when adding up all of the personal property, you can exclude what's known as "exempt property," which includes:
If you own real estate, you can't use voluntary administration to transfer that real estate. However, you can still use voluntary administration for your personal property. N.Y. Surr. Ct. Proc. Act § 1302.
At her death, Mindy leaves behind a home in New York. (She owns it as a joint tenant with right of survivorship, so her share of the home automatically passes to other joint owner.) She also leaves behind $45,000 in a bank account, a car worth $10,000, and furniture and other household items worth $5,000. The total value of her personal property is therefore $60,000. While at first glance it seems like her estate might be too large to qualify as a small estate in New York (defined as personal property under $50,000), her car, furniture, and household items are "exempt" (see above). Only the $45,000 in her bank account counts in the tally. As a result, her survivors can use voluntary administration rather than full probate, and therefore save money and time.
Below is an overview of New York's simplified probate process. While it sounds like there are many steps, rest assured that the procedure is much faster and simpler than regular probate. You won't have to jump through many of the hoops of full probate.
First, someone has to take charge of the voluntary administration process. This person will file an affidavit with the probate court (called "surrogate's court" in New York) and be appointed as the official "voluntary administrator." If the deceased person left behind a will, the executor can file this affidavit. If there was no will, there's an order of priority for who can be appointed: first up is the surviving spouse, and if there is no spouse, then a child, and so on. Generally, the closest living relative has priority.
The affidavit that's filed with the court must contain the following information:
To create the affidavit, you can use the New York courts' DIY small estate affidavit program. You'll also need to a certified copy of the death certificate.
Once you're appointed as the voluntary administrator, you'll have many of the standard duties of an executor or personal administrator. For example, you'll use the estate assets to pay any estate debts. You'll also receive official certificates from the court. You will present these certificates to the person or institution holding each asset or piece of property—for example, a bank where the deceased person had an account. You can then collect the assets and distribute them to the people who are inheriting them. N.Y. Surr. Ct. Proc. Act 1304.
Keep good records and hang on to receipts. When you're done, you'll need to provide an accounting to the court (Report and Account in Settlement of Estate) that lists the property you collected and the distributions you made to the people that inherited the property, and you'll need to attach receipts.
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 New York estate planning issues, see our section on New York Estate Planning.