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Probate Without a Will in North Carolina

March 20, 2024 Estate & Trust Administration

Losing a loved one is difficult, and dealing with the legal process that comes after can be overwhelming. If a loved one dies without a will in North Carolina, there are a series of steps to ensure that the assets are distributed fairly among the heirs. This article provides an overview of the process of going through probate without a will in North Carolina.

Probate Without a Will: The First Steps

If someone passes away without a will, their estate is called intestate. North Carolina law controls the distribution of their property and belongings through a legal process called intestate succession. Intestate succession gives preference to spouses, children, and other close relatives in a particular order. The surviving spouse and children usually receive the assets first, but if there are none, the distribution moves on to more distant relatives.

  1. Initiating the Probate Process in North Carolina:  The first step in probate without a will, also known as intestate succession, is to open a probate case. Open the case in the county where the deceased person lived at the time of their death. You must complete an Application for Probate and Letters (AOC Form E-201) with the Clerk of Superior Court. This application officially requests the court’s permission to begin probate.

  2. Qualifying to Serve as Personal Representative:  The court will schedule a hearing to determine whether you can serve as the personal representative. The court prefers a surviving spouse or the next of kin in North Carolina. If approved, you’ll receive Letters of Administration granting you the legal authority to manage the estate.

  3. Identifying and Valuing Assets:  It is your responsibility as the personal representative to create a list of all the possessions the deceased person owned. This list should include homes, money held in bank accounts, personal belongings, and other valuables. Make sure that you record every item accurately and value every item correctly. 

  4. Notifying Creditors and Settling Debts:  You must inform everyone with claims against the deceased person to submit their claims. The notice must contain a mailing address for you, as the personal representative or collector, and a deadline for submitting claims. This deadline should be at least three months from the first publication or posting of the notice. You should publish the notice once a week for four consecutive weeks in a newspaper authorized to publish legal advertisements.

Probate Without a Will: How to Distribute Assets

When someone passes away and has debts, the debts are paid off using their assets first. Whatever is left over is then distributed among their heirs according to the laws of North Carolina. There are two types of assets in an estate, personal property and real property. Personal property includes but is not limited to things such as money, jewelry, clothing, or vehicles. Real property is land and any permanent structures on that land.

If a deceased person is survived by their spouse, the distribution of assets will depend on whether they have any lineal descendants or parents. A lineal descendant is a person in direct line to an ancestor, such as a child, grandchild, great-grandchild, etc. Without lineal descendants or parents, the surviving spouse will inherit 100% of personal and real property. The following scenarios describe what the surviving spouse would receive in different familial situations:

  • Suppose there is one child or any lineal descendants of one deceased child. In that case, the surviving spouse will receive the first $60,000 of personal property, half of the remaining personal property, and half of the real property.
  • If there are two or more children or lineal descendants of two or more children, the surviving spouse will inherit the first $60,000 of personal property, one-third of the remaining personal property, and one-third of the real property.
  • When no children survive, but a parent does, the surviving spouse will receive the first $100,000 of personal property, half of the remaining personal property, and half of the real property.
  • If the surviving spouse is absent or others are surviving the decedent, distribution is determined based on kinship classes. Lineal descendants, parents, siblings, and other relatives are considered in subsequent order, with specific rules outlined for each scenario.
  • What happens if there is no surviving spouse, lineal descendants, parents, siblings, or other close relatives? At this point, distribution extends to more distant relatives such as grandparents and aunts or uncles.

Probate Without a Will: Closing the Process

  1. Filing a Final Accounting:  Once a deceased person’s debts are paid and their belongings are given to the rightful heirs, the administrator needs to prepare the Final Account (AOC Form E-506), records all the financial activities related to the estate. This document will list all the money coming in and going out and who received what. The court will review the Final Account to ensure everything is legal and follows the laws of North Carolina.

  2. Closing the Probate Case:  Once everything has been settled, the court needs to approve and confirm that all debts have been paid, the assets have been distributed according to the law, and all legal requirements have been met. Once the court is satisfied, it will officially close the probate case.

OK, How Do I Do This the Right Way?

Dealing with the legal process of probate without a will can be confusing and complicated, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the law. But don’t worry; hiring a qualified probate attorney can simplify the process. They can give you expert advice, explain the legal requirements, and guide you through every step of the process. This professional help can be invaluable, especially if you are unsure what to do. After you seek legal advice, here are some other steps you can take:

  1. Maintain Records:  Maintaining accurate records during the probate process is crucial. You should record all financial transactions, communication with heirs, creditors, and other parties involved, and the decisions made throughout the estate’s administration. Keeping detailed records will help you stay organized and provide evidence when preparing the final accounting for the court. Such transparency can speed up the probate process and reduce the risk of disputes.

  2. Communicate:  Effective communication ensures a seamless process, which is especially important during probate without a will. Keeping heirs, creditors, and other involved parties informed about significant developments and decisions is crucial. Regular updates can help manage expectations and prevent any misunderstandings. It is recommended to encourage open dialogue and address any concerns promptly to maintain a cooperative atmosphere during an emotional and challenging time for all parties involved.

  3. Stay on Top of Deadlines:  Be mindful of specific timelines and deadlines for probate proceedings. Failing to meet these deadlines can cause unnecessary delays and complications. To avoid missing important deadlines, it is recommended to create a timeline that clearly outlines critical dates for filing necessary documents, notifying creditors, and attending court hearings. Staying organized and adhering to these deadlines will help ensure the probate process moves forward efficiently and by the required schedule.

  4. Appraise Assets Accurately:  Consulting with professionals like appraisers and financial experts is essential to determine the actual value of real estate, personal property, and other assets. A precise valuation can prevent disputes among heirs and ensure that the estate is administered in accordance with North Carolina probate laws. 

  5. Explore Mediation for Disputes:  Consider mediation if there are disagreements among heirs or disputes over asset distribution. Mediation is a process where a neutral third party helps facilitate discussions and negotiations between the conflicting parties. It is a more cost-effective and amicable alternative to litigation, providing a platform for mutually agreeable resolutions.

  6. Keep Debts and Expenses Transparent:  Maintaining transparency while resolving debts and expenses is essential. You should provide accurate and detailed documentation to the court about how the estate’s assets were used to settle all outstanding debts. This transparency will help you follow probate laws and demonstrate your commitment to fair and lawful estate distribution.

Final Thoughts

It can be challenging to go through probate without a will. The best starting approach is to break it down into steps. Filing the required documents and maintaining clear communication throughout the process is important. Even though going through probate without a will is challenging, it’s a crucial step in ensuring a fair and lawful distribution of a loved one’s assets.

If you have questions about probate without a will or would like assistance, schedule an appointment or call us at 336-790-5107 today.

Disclaimer: The information above is provided for general information only and should not be considered legal advice. Our attorneys provide legal advice to our clients after talking about the specific circumstances of the client’s situation. Our law firm cannot give you legal advice unless we understand your situation by talking with you. Please contact our law office to receive specific information about your situation.

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Jeffrey L. Bloomfield Founding Attorney
Jeff is a highly dedicated and accomplished lawyer with a wealth of experience in various areas of law, particularly focusing on tax, estate planning, and estate administration. His expertise and genuine passion for charitable planning make him a sought-after advisor for families looking to structure their initiatives using trusts.

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