The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, Wisconsin offers two probate shortcuts for "small estates." If the property you leave behind at your death is below a certain amount, Wisconsin allows the property to be transferred more quickly and with less hassle. In other words, if your estate qualifies as "small," your loved ones may be able to use simplified probate procedures, or even skip probate entirely.
Wisconsin offers a procedure that allows inheritors to skip probate altogether. To qualify, the gross value of all of the deceased person's property that's subject to probate can't exceed $50,000. (Wis. Stat. Ann. § 867.03.)
So even relatively large estates might still qualify as a "small estate" for purposes of the small estate affidavit procedure.
If your estate meets the requirements listed above, your inheritor can sign a simple document under oath, informally called a "small estate affidavit." (Here's a small estate affidavit form maintained by the Wisconsin bar.)
After signing the document (and swearing to its truthfulness) and having it notarized, the inheritor simply presents the affidavit to the person or institution holding the property—for example, a bank where the deceased person had an account. The inheritor will usually also need to provide a certified copy of the death certificate. After that, the person or institution releases the asset. This process skips probate court entirely.
Another probate shortcut that Wisconsin offers is a simplified probate process for small estates, called "summary settlement of small estates" (or "summary probate"). Unlike the affidavit procedure discussed above, summary settlement does not allow your survivors to skip probate. However, the probate process is much more streamlined than full probate, saving time, probate fees, and potentially lawyer fees.
If you leave behind a surviving spouse or minor children, your estate can use summary settlement of small estates if the total value of property (minus any debts for which property in the estate is security) doesn't exceed $50,000. (Wis. Stat. Ann. § 867.01.)
Whether or not you leave a spouse or minor children, you can use summary settlement if the value of the estate (minus any debts for which property in the estate is security) doesn't exceed the sum of:
The bottom line is that if the size of your estate doesn't exceed these amounts, which can be set aside from your estate by law, your executor or personal representative can wrap up your estate in probate court very quickly because there aren't any remaining assets after these amounts are paid out.
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 Wisconsin estate planning issues, see our section on Wisconsin Estate Planning.