When a person passes away in North Carolina, their estate typically goes through an administrative process called probate. However, an alternative called Summary Administration provides a simplified approach. This more straightforward administration process is specifically designed for when the surviving spouse is the sole devisee or heir, and there are no concerns about creditors that might require a more complex process to address.

In this article, we will explore the critical aspects of Summary Administration. We’ll see how it offers a streamlined process for surviving spouses so that they can avoid a lengthy probate process.

Why Avoid Probate Court? Is the Probate Process Always Lengthy?

As a surviving spouse, the decedent may have named you the will’s executor. Without a will, the court might name you as the estate administrator.

Whoever the executor or administrator is, the probate attorney or the court calls them the “personal representative.” This person is responsible for settling the estate assets and debts. This process includes working with the probate court to do the following:

  • Inventory the estate
  • Pay debts and creditor claims
  • Pay income taxes or property taxes
  • Give inheritances to the heirs named in the will (or, if there is no last will, give the estate money and property to heirs according to North Carolina intestate estate laws)
  • Work with the court to close the estate

Probate can take a long time if there are any contests to the will or other issues with heirs or creditors that involve disputes. It is also a process in which the personal representative must attend court and work with a Clerk of Court to settle the estate.

The probate process is not an event many people want to go through. A summary administration of an estate is often an easier way to settle the entire estate for a spouse who will inherit everything.

Are You Eligible for Summary Administration of an Estate?

Summary administration is possible whether the decedent dies:

  • Testate (with a last will)
  • Intestate (without a last will)

With a summary administration, the decedent must also have left behind a surviving spouse as the sole heir.

Summary Administration is unavailable if one of the following conditions exists:

  • The will explicitly states that summary administration is not an option for the surviving spouse.
  • If the inheritance to the surviving spouse under the will is in trust rather than an outright inheritance. (1)

Summary Administration Brings Personal Liability

The surviving spouse becomes liable for the decedent’s debts when opting for Summary Administration. However, in North Carolina, surviving spouses are often responsible personally for certain types of debts of their deceased spouse, such as medical bills and nursing home costs.

Depending on the circumstances, the deceased spouse may or may not add additional liability to a surviving spouse.

For example, let’s say there was only a nursing home bill as the sole creditor. In this case, the surviving spouse sees no other ascertainable creditors. They may be liable for this payment anyway. So opting for Summary Administration may be easier since they would have to pay the bill either way.

However, there are other debts that spouses in NC are generally not responsible for. If this is the case, the surviving spouse may choose not to risk becoming personally accountable for such debts. They might instead choose to let the estate assets and debts go through the probate process and avoid summary administration.

So, in some cases, a spouse may avoid extra personal liability to pay additional bills by avoiding summary administration.

Filing a Petition for Summary Administration

To initiate Summary Administration, the surviving spouse must file a petition with the Clerk in the county where the decedent lived at the time of death.

The petition must be accurate and complete to the best of the spouse’s knowledge and belief.

Once the Clerk reviews the petition and supporting evidence, they may enter an order for Summary Administration. The Clerk’s order is recorded on AOC-E-904M (Order of Summary Administration) and certifies the surviving spouse’s authority to handle the decedent’s estate.

After the Clerk enters the order, the Clerk’s order for Summary Administration has several important effects. Let’s look at those next.

No Need for Further Administration

Summary Administration eliminates the need for further estate administration processes. The surviving spouse is not required to take an oath, post a bond, publish a notice to creditors, file an inventory, or provide an accounting.

Transfer of Property

A certified copy of the order is sufficient to transfer any property or contract rights owned by the decedent at the time of death. This includes the following:

  • Wages
  • Motor vehicle titles
  • Ownership rights in bank accounts or credit unions
  • Ownership rights in corporate stock or securities held by the decedent

Real Property Transactions

After the Clerk enters the order for Summary Administration, the surviving spouse can convey, lease, sell, or mortgage any real property inherited from the deceased person based on their own determination of terms.

The provisions of GS 28A-17-12, which voids certain transactions within two years after the decedent’s death, do not apply to transactions under Summary Administration.

Liability Discharge

Individuals or entities who comply with the Clerk’s order for Summary Administration are discharged and released to the same extent as if they had dealt with a duly qualified personal representative (PR) of the decedent’s estate. They are not required to inquire into the truth of statements in the petition formal notice or order.

If someone refuses to comply with the Clerk’s order, the surviving spouse has the right to bring an action against them. In such cases, the person whose refusal necessitated the action may be responsible for court costs and attorney fees.

Summary Administration is used less frequently than other estate administration methods. This means that surviving spouses often run into resistance when using the order to obtain control over assets.

It’s important to note that when the Clerk grants the order for Summary Administration, the surviving spouse is deemed to have assumed the decedent’s liabilities to the extent of the decedent’s estate assets. This includes liabilities not discharged by the decedent’s death, taxes, and valid claims against the decedent or the estate.

Appointing a Personal Representative or Collector Later

The granting of Summary Administration does not prevent the subsequent appointment of a PR (personal representative) or collector.

Any person qualified to serve as a PR, including the surviving spouse, may petition the Clerk for such an appointment.

If the court appoints a PR or collector, the surviving spouse must provide a proper accounting and deliver assets of the decedent’s estate to them. The surviving spouse is then discharged from liability for the decedent’s debts. G.S. 28A-28-7(b).

Summary Administration Bottom Line

Summary Administration offers a simplified and expedited process for surviving spouses in North Carolina. By following the necessary steps and meeting the requirements, surviving spouses can efficiently manage the decedent’s estate, transfer property, and fulfill their responsibilities.

However, seeking legal counsel is strongly advised to address all legal aspects during this process properly.

An Experienced Probate Attorney Can Help

At Hopler, Wilms, and Hanna, we have decades of experience working with estate administration cases, including the simplified probate process. Our team is well-versed in the intricacies of summary administration, and we can help you avoid formal administration in many cases.

We assist you at every stage, ensuring adherence to state laws and regulations. Our approach streamlines the process, offering ease and clarity when working through the challenges following losing a loved one.

Rely on us to manage your estate administration needs with compassion, professionalism, and a deep understanding of these sensitive matters. Get in touch today and find out how we can simplify your legal to-do list.

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