Closing a spouse's estate requires separating joint property and debt from that belonging solely to your spouse, transferring your spouse's assets into your name and paying off creditors. A surviving spouse is often named executor of the estate in a deceased spouse's will. If probate is necessary, the probate court makes the appointment official and grants the surviving spouse the authority to settle the deceased's final affairs.
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Determine which property can be passed directly to you without the court's involvement. Any accounts, including bank and investment, that name the surviving spouse as joint owner or have payable-upon-death affidavits attached pass directly to the surviving spouse. Life insurance policies naming the surviving spouse as beneficiary may be paid without court involvement, and real property owned with the decedent spouse with right of survivorship passes directly to the surviving spouse without court process. Additionally, marital property, such as furniture and household goods acquired by both spouses together during the marriage, are considered jointly owned and pass directly to the surviving spouse in the absence of instructions in a will to the contrary. If the deceased's estate consists only of these types of property, a probate may not be necessary, as there is no remaining property for the court to distribute.
Obtain your spouse's death certificate and a copy of her will. File them both with the probate court in the county where you live and open probate. Open a separate bank account for estate administration to keep financial records separate from the ongoing operation of your household.
Remove your spouse's name from any jointly owned accounts or property. Present the death certificate to the bank and have her removed from your joint account. Send copies to the three credit bureaus and have her name deleted from their databases. Also send copies to the Social Security Administration and to any insurance carriers to initiate the payable-upon-death/beneficiary provisions of the policies.
Inventory the decedent spouse's separate property, any property not owned jointly by both spouses. Assign a value to each asset, consulting a professional valuation expert if necessary. Submit the inventory to the court.
Pay yourself any spousal allowance allotted to you by your state's probate laws. Often states allow the deceased's immediate family to receive a living allowance to compensate for the length of time the estate may be held up in probate. This allowance comes off the top of the estate's value and is typically paid before any other expenses.
Notify all creditors of debts owed solely by your deceased spouse. Each state's probate laws specify how creditors must be notified, but generally you must make a genuine effort to identify all creditors and contact them directly with notice of your spouse's death. Additionally, you must publish a notice to creditors in your local newspaper. The notice must run once a week for the number of weeks specified by your state's relevant statutes, usually three or four weeks. Creditors generally have three to six months, depending on the state, to submit claims against the estate. Meanwhile, continue to make payments on joint accounts while the financial institutions or businesses are processing your request to have the accounts transferred solely into your name.
Retitle all real estate and automobiles into your name as surviving spouse. Pay all remaining expenses of the estate, such as costs for the decedent's last illness and funeral. You may also be able to collect a fee for performing the duties of personal representative, depending on what your state allows. Pay all creditors of the estate. File the final tax return for the estate. You may file either separate returns for yourself and your deceased spouse or a final joint return.
File a final accounting report with the probate court together with a motion to close the estate. The court will review the accounting and ask any final questions it may have. The court then grants the motion, which closes the estate and ends the probate process.