Dolores M. Coulter

Attorney at Law

8341 Office Park Dr. Ste C

Grand Blanc, MI 48439

Phone:  (810) 603-0801




Small Estates

Dolores M. Coulter © December 2008

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Q:      My uncle passed away recently. He was in a nursing home and had about $250 in the patient trust account at the nursing home.  He also had a car in his name which my aunt was using until she became ill.  My aunt has asked me to help her get her financial affairs in order.  My uncle left a will leaving everything to my aunt.  Does she have to go through probate to get the car in her name and the $250? 

No.  In my previous two Questions & Answers I discussed several small estate procedures for transferring property to a surviving spouse or other heirs where the total value of the property subject to probate is relatively small.  The first Question & Answer discussed the procedure where the total value of the property subject to probate, minus the funeral and burial expenses, is less than $22,000. The second Question & Answer discussed another small estate procedure that is available to a surviving spouse where the total value of the property subject to probate, minus the funeral and burial expenses, administrative expenses, and medical expenses of the last illness is less than $64,000.  These dollar limits apply for individuals who died in 2016.  There are several other small estate procedures that are available that apply to your aunt’s situation that do not involve probate court at all. 

If the total value of all motor vehicles owned by your uncle is less than $60,000 and there is no other property that requires probate your aunt can have the title to the vehicles transferred to her name by taking a certified copy of your uncle’s death certificate and, if available, the certificate of title to a Secretary of State’s office.  She will have to fill out the “Certification from the Heir to a Vehicle” form.  By signing the form she is certifying that no probate court proceedings are pending and no proceedings will be started in the future. If she wants to transfer the title directly to someone else instead of herself and there are no liens on the car she can include this request on the form.  The Secretary of State will then issue a new certificate of title.  

Your aunt should also be able to obtain the $250 in the trust account at the nursing home without any probate court involvement.  There is a specific provision in the Michigan probate code that states that a nursing home, hospital, morgue or law enforcement agency that is holding cash not exceeding $500 or wearing apparel belonging to a deceased person may deliver the cash or apparel to the surviving spouse, child, or parent.  The person who receives the items must furnish identification and sign an affidavit stating his/her relationship to the deceased and that no probate proceeding is pending.  Although there are forms available for almost everything related to the probate of an estate I am not aware of a form for this affidavit. 

Although not applicable in your aunt’s case there is another small estate procedure that is available where the only asset that would  otherwise require probate is a paycheck or fringe benefits (such as accrued vacation pay) payable to the decedent.  If the employer has a written contract, policy, or plan that provides for the payment of accrued wages or fringe benefits upon the employee’s death to a specified individual or to the next of kin, then the employer must pay those amounts pursuant to the contract, plan, or policy.  If there is no written contract, plan, or policy covering payments on behalf of a deceased employee, the employer must pay the unpaid wages and fringe benefits in the following order of priority: to the surviving spouse, surviving children, surviving parent(s), surviving brothers and sisters.

The small estate procedures that we have discussed in the past several months reflect a trend in probate law toward making the probate process more streamlined, less costly, and less time-consuming.  Most estates are probated under “informal probate” proceedings. There are standard forms available for almost every step in the process.  No court hearings are required unless there is a contested issue or some other issue that requires judicial involvement such as interpreting a will that has contradictory provisions.  Most people have heard or read horror stories about estate proceedings that have gone on for years, with a large portion of the estate being consumed by administration expenses, including attorney fees.  In almost every case these are estates where someone is contesting some aspect of the process, or where the estate is extremely complicated, or where the decedent left his/her affairs in a disorganized mess.  As for court fees, there is a $175 filing fee, a fee (currently $80.25) for publishing a one-time newspaper notice to creditors, and fees for certified copies.  There is also an “inventory fee” which depends on the size of the estate; for example the fee for an estate valued at $100,000 is $362.50.  In the past some attorneys charged fees based on a percentage of the estate. Now almost all attorneys charge fees based on an hourly rate, since the amount of work involved in probating an estate often has no relation to the size of the estate.




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