The period after the death of a loved one is difficult for family and friends. The last thing that anyone wants to think about are the legal issues that must be addressed related to closing the decedent’s estate. Unfortunately, the law requires those legal issues to be addressed relatively quickly. Estate administration is a legal proceeding during which a decedent’s estate is managed, debts are paid, and assets distributed. If there is a will, the process starts with the submitting of the will for probate. Missed deadlines can result in penalties. In Nebraska, the County Court serves as the probate court and has jurisdiction over probate matters. An estate case generally takes 6 to 9 months. However, complications such as probate disputes can extend the process and impact the outcome. On the other hand, there are also procedures that allow for expedited asset distribution for small estates.
Process of Settling an Estate
A probate case in Nebraska is opened when a petition for probate is filed with the County Court in the county where the decedent resided at the time of death. If the decedent was testate, meaning they left a will, then the will must be submitted along with the petition. The court will officially appoint the personal representative, giving them the authority to take control of the decedent’s estate and perform the duties and responsibilities necessary to close the estate. The major steps in the estate administration process for which they are responsible for include:
- Informing creditors and beneficiaries
- Identifying estate assets
- Appraising assets
- Paying debts and expenses
- Filing tax returns and paying taxes
- Distributing assets
Problems During the Process
The process of settling an estate sometimes comes with surprises. One surprise is when parties get into disputes that they are unable to resolve. Instead, they must argue their cases in court. There are a wide range of issues that may be the center of probate litigation, including challenges to the validity of the will leading to will contests, actions of the executor, creditors demanding payment, arguments over rights to estate property, and ambiguities related to inheritance rights.
Whether the probate litigation is related to a will contest or any other issue, probate litigation almost always halts the progress of probate.
For a variety of reasons not everyone leaves a will. The lack of a will does not exempt the estate from the review of the court. It simply means that certain things are done a bit differently during the process. One of those things is the determination of who gets the property. The provisions of Nebraska’s intestate succession law must be applied. NE Code § 30-2301 et seq. This means that the estate goes to the decedent’s statutory heirs. The primary heirs are the surviving spouse and children. If the decedent has neither, then next in line to inherit would be the decedent’s parents followed by siblings.
If you are the administrator of an intestate estate where the decedent has no known relatives, the administrator must make every reasonable effort to locate an heir. Should someone come forward, the court may hold a kinship hearing to confirm consanguinity before distribution of assets. In the rare case that no relative is found, the decedent’s property would escheat to the state.
Options for Small Estates
If the estate has minimal assets and meets other eligibility requirements, then asset distribution can happen relatively quickly without going through the complicated procedures of formal administration.
Collection of Personal Property by Affidavit
Nebraska has a procedure that allows people to get property from an estate to which they are legally entitled. NE Code § 30-24,125. For example, if the decedent died owing a debt to someone, that person can use the Collection of Personal Property by Affidavit procedure to get payment from the estate without having to go through probate. The following conditions apply:
- There is a 30-day waiting period following the decedent’s death
- The value of the personal property in the decedent’s estate is $50,000 or less
- The claimant must state the basis of their claim to the personal property
- There is no petition for the appointment of a personal representative that is pending or that has been granted
Under NE Code § 30-24,127, if the value of the estate does not exceed homestead and family allowances, expenses related to administration, funeral and burial expenses, and medical expenses of the decedent’s last illness, the personal representative has the authority to immediately distribute the estate to the persons entitled to it.