The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, Vermont 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 procedure called a "small estate proceeding" to transfer your property more quickly and with less hassle. (In other states, this simplified probate process is often called "summary probate" or "summary administration.")
You can use a small estate proceeding in Vermont if:
Below is an overview of Vermont'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 to Open Small Estate. If the deceased person left behind a will, the executor will usually file this application. The petition names the proposed executor or personal representative (who will handle the probate process), and collects the names and signatures of "interested persons" (those who will inherit property) who consent to the proceeding. The following must also be submitted:
Vt. Stat. tit. 14 § 1901. If an interested person doesn't consent to the small estate proceeding, they must be provided with notice of the petition, and will then have 14 days to file an objection with the probate court.
If no interested person objects within 14 days of receiving notice, the probate court admits the will (if there was one) and issues "letters" to the personal representative. This document authorizes the personal representative to act.
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. (Unlike regular probate, however, you're not required to give notice to creditors. In regular probate in Vermont, there's a four-month period for creditors to make their claims; with a small estate proceeding, you can skip this waiting period.) After debts are paid, you'll distribute the remaining property to the inheritors.
When you're done, you'll need to provide an accounting to the court. You'll file a Report of Fiduciary for Small Estate, which lists the property you collected and the distributions you made. You'll attach any relevant 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 Vermont estate planning issues, see our section on Vermont Estate Planning.