When someone close to you passes away, dealing with their estate can feel overwhelming. Many people don’t know what comes next until someone mentions probate. But what is probate exactly? It’s the legal process that follows a person’s death, the handling of what is left behind.


If you’ve never experienced it before, you might wonder how it works here in North Carolina. Whether you’re a surviving spouse, an adult child, or a close relative, understanding probate proceedings can make this challenging time a bit more manageable. Learning the basics can help you approach the process with confidence.

Whether you’re handling a loved one’s estate or planning your own, keep reading to ensure a smooth transition and peace of mind for everyone involved.

What is Probate in North Carolina?

Probate is the court-supervised process of validating a deceased person’s will and distributing their assets according to state laws.

The probate process ensures that the decedent’s property is transferred legally and fairly to the rightful heirs or beneficiaries. 

The process begins when someone initiates a probate case in the probate court. This person is often the executor named in the will or a family member if no executor was named.\


When There Is Not a Last Will and Testament

When the decedent does not leave a will behind, probate becomes an “intestate proceeding.” The person appointed by the court to work with the estate assets and settle the estate is called the administrator.

When There IS a Last Will and Testament

When there is a will, the estate is “testate,” and the executor is generally named in the will. Whether you are an administrator or an executor, the court calls you the personal representative.

Who Is the Personal Representative?

If you’re named as the personal representative by the court, you’ll be the person responsible for managing the decedent’s estate. This role involves various duties, from filing the necessary paperwork with the court to notifying known creditors and beneficiaries.

How Does the Probate Process Work?


In North Carolina, probate involves many steps, including:

  • Proving the validity of the will
  • Inventorying the deceased person’s assets
  • Paying off debts and taxes
  • Distributing the remaining assets to the legal heirs

This legal process might sound complicated, but it’s essentially about making sure everyone honors the deceased person’s wishes and handles their estate correctly.

Types of Property: Probate and Non-Probate Assets

Probate treats different assets differently. Some types of property avoid probate altogether.

These assets generally avoid probate court:

  • Jointly owned property with right of survivorship
  • Life insurance proceeds
  • Trust funds
  • Retirement accounts

Assets such as retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to the named beneficiary.

On the other hand, some assets go through probate (unless they are in a trust), such as:

  • Personal property
  • Bank accounts
  • Real estate (unless jointly owned with right of survivorship)

Understanding which assets need to go through probate and which do not can save time and reduce other costs associated with the process.

What Does the Personal Representative Do For the Probate Court?

In North Carolina, the personal representative (also known as the executor or administrator) has several duties and responsibilities to fulfill for the probate court according to NC statutes. 

These duties ensure that the estate is properly managed and distributed according to the law and the decedent’s will, if there is one.


Here’s a detailed overview of what the personal representative needs to do:

1- File the Will and Petition for Probate

If there is a will, the personal representative must file it with the Clerk of Superior Court in the county where the decedent resided. Along with the will, the personal representative needs to file a petition for probate to officially start the probate process.

2- Obtain Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration

After the petition is filed, the court will issue Letters Testamentary (if there is a will) or Letters of Administration (if there is no will). These documents officially authorize the personal representative to act on behalf of the estate.

3- Take Inventory of the Estate

The personal representative must take a detailed inventory of all the decedent’s assets, including real property, personal property, bank accounts, investments, and any other assets. This inventory must be filed with the probate court within three months of the appointment.

4- Notify Creditors

The personal representative must notify all known creditors of the estate. This involves publishing a notice to creditors in a local newspaper and sending direct notice to known creditors. 

Creditors then have a certain period (usually 90 days from the date of the notice) to file claims against the estate.

5- Pay Debts and Expenses

The personal representative is responsible for paying the decedent’s debts and any expenses related to the administration of the estate. This includes funeral costs, taxes, and any other legitimate claims made by creditors.

6- File Estate Tax Returns and Personal Income Tax Returns

If the estate is subject to federal estate taxes, the personal representative must file the necessary tax returns and pay any taxes due. This may include income taxes for the decedent and estate taxes for the estate.

They will also file the personal income tax returns for the decedent.

7- Distribute Assets to Beneficiaries

Once all debts, taxes, and expenses have been paid, the personal representative distributes the remaining assets to the beneficiaries according to the terms of the will or, if there is no will, according to North Carolina’s intestacy laws.

8- Provide an Accounting to the Court

The personal representative must provide the probate court with a detailed accounting of all transactions involving the estate. This includes income received by the estate, payments made, and the final distribution of assets. 

This accounting must be filed before the estate can be closed.

Close the Estate

After the final accounting is approved by the probate court and all assets have been distributed, the personal representative can petition the court to close the estate. The court will then issue an order closing the estate and officially releasing the personal representative from their duties.

By following these steps, the personal representative ensures that the estate is administered according to North Carolina law and that the decedent’s wishes are honored.

Are There Other Ways to Settle An Estate?

What if you could bypass this often complex and time-consuming process with a more straightforward path to settling affairs? 

For small estates, North Carolina offers simplified probate proceedings that can expedite the process and reduce the burden on surviving family members. 

However, larger estates may require a more in-depth probate administration, ensuring all the decedent’s property and assets are properly accounted for and distributed.

Let’s explore the scenarios when probate might not be necessary.

Trust-Based Estate Planning

Trust-based estate planning offers a smoother path. Think of a trust as a secure vessel that holds assets. When these assets are in a trust, they pass directly to the beneficiaries, neatly sidestepping the probate process. 

Instead of the court overseeing the distribution, the trustee named by the maker of the trust privately handles the process.

This method not only streamlines the distribution of assets but also stands as a preferred choice for many due to its efficiency and privacy.

Surviving Spouses and Summary Administration


For surviving spouses, North Carolina law provides a simpler alternative: summary administration. This process is quicker and less complicated than traditional probate. It applies when the deceased leaves everything to their surviving spouse.

However, this option is not available if the will explicitly prohibits it or if the assets are left in a trust created under the will.

North Carolina also provides a sizable spousal allowance that comes directly from the estate before any type of probate events begin. This allowance acts as a financial safety net for surviving spouses. 

As a spouse, you can claim this allowance regardless of the will’s directives. This amount is also protected from creditors, offering a crucial financial buffer during a challenging time.

Small Estate Affidavit


When dealing with small estates, the full probate process can be avoided if the total value of assets is less than $20,000. By filing a straightforward affidavit, you can expedite the process. The amount increases to $30,000 if the spouse is the sole heir or beneficiary, making it a bit easier for spouses to manage the estate.

Understanding these exceptions allows families in North Carolina to navigate the estate administration process with greater ease and less burden. It’s about choosing the path that suits your unique situation, ensuring a smoother transition during a difficult period.

Experienced Probate and Estate Administration Attorneys Can Help

At Hopler, Wilms, and Hanna, we understand that navigating the probate and estate administration process can feel overwhelming. We are here to guide you every step of the way, providing the support and experience you need during this challenging time.


Understanding Your Unique Situation

Every family’s situation is unique. Whether you are dealing with a small estate or a complex one involving multiple properties and investments, we tailor our approach to fit your specific needs.

We take the time to listen to your concerns and understand your goals, ensuring that we provide personalized and effective solutions.

Simplifying the Probate Process

The probate process can be intricate and time-consuming. Our experienced attorneys will help you navigate this process with ease. From filing necessary documents to representing you in probate court, we handle all aspects of probate administration.

This allows you to focus on what matters most – caring for your family and moving forward.

Exploring Alternatives to Probate

In some cases, probate may not be necessary. We can help you explore alternatives such as trust-based estate planning, summary administration for surviving spouses, and small estate affidavits. These options can simplify the distribution of assets and reduce the burden on your family.

We explain each option in detail and help you determine the best course of action for your situation.

Protecting Your Interests

Our priority is to protect your interests and ensure that your loved one’s wishes are honored. We provide diligent representation and work tirelessly to resolve any disputes or issues that may arise during the estate administration process.

With our team on your side, you can have peace of mind knowing that your family’s future is secure.

Providing Ongoing Support and Guidance

Probate and estate administration can be a lengthy process. We offer ongoing support and guidance throughout the entire journey. Whether you have questions about specific steps or need advice on managing estate assets, we are here to help.

Our commitment to our clients extends beyond just legal representation – we are your trusted advisors during this time.

Contact Us Today

If you are facing the probate or estate administration process, don’t go through it alone. Reach out to Hopler, Wilms, and Hanna today. Let us provide the experienced guidance and compassionate support you need to navigate this challenging time. 

We are here for you every step of the way.

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