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Steps in estate settlement

The deceased person's will or trust document dictates how their assets will be distributed. Will settlement is done through the court supervised process of probate. If the decedent has no will, referred to as “dying intestate,” the state of residence generally has a procedure that is followed. If the deceased person has a simple will and a surviving spouse, the assets will transfer to the surviving spouse through the probate process. If property is held tenancy in common, it is subject to the probate process as well. Trust settlement is a private process and does not require court supervision or probate.

The probate process in the United States is designed to settle the affairs of a deceased individual. It is a court-administered process in which a judge determines if a valid will exists, decides who will be the personal representative for the decedent’s estate, and approves the plan for the distribution of the decedent’s assets. The primary function of the probate process is to determine what property was owned by the deceased, to pay off creditors and legally distribute the assets to the rightful heirs. To complete this process many considerations and several steps must be taken. In Minnesota, probate can take on average 12-18 months and can cost as much as an average of 2 to 3 percent of the estate value. In Minnesota, if a decedent has less than $75,000 of assets and no real estate, they may bypass the probate process.

If a trust is involved, there will be a trustee or trustees. The trust must go through an administrative phase, the process for closing out the trust. This is a private process, does not involve the court, is not open to the public, and generally costs less and takes less time than probate.

Steps in estate settlement


There are many other details, which must be attended to during the settlement period. They may include newspaper notifications, formal appointment of the personal representative or trustee, notification of heirs, determination and payment of personal representative or trustee fees, closing of all accounts and formal closing of the estate. The attorney will advise the family or personal representative/trustee as to these details as the process proceeds.

Not covered here is the distribution of personal assets, which although may have low monetary may have very high emotional value to heirs. For more information on distribution of personal estate assets, see transferring non-titled property.

Caution: This publication is offered as educational information. It does not offer legal advice. If you have questions on this information, contact an attorney.

Gary Hachfeld, former Extension educator; David Bau, Extension educator and C. Robert Holcomb, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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