A law passed by the 2021 West Virginia Legislature now governs the administration of smaller estates by simplifying the process.
In effect since July 1, 2021, the new law permits a faster overall process for receiving money and other property owed to the decedent and distributing the assets, as long as certain amounts are involved.
The advantages are that much lower probate fees will be charged, and no final report to close the estate is needed.
There are certain requirements for the new procedures, including that the person handling the estate is a West Virginia resident.
If a deceased person owned a total of $50,000 or less of financial accounts, vehicles, personal property, life insurance payable to the estate, etc., that is the first consideration for applying the new law to a specific estate.
Also, if the decedent owned a total of $100,000 or less in real estate in West Virginia, that is the second factor in determining whether the new law applies to a particular estate.
The real estate must be owned solely by the deceased individual or otherwise be subject to probate.
If the decedent owned real estate that will pass to others as non-probate property, then the value of that property is not included in the $100,000 total.
For example, property owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship is non-probate real estate and will be excluded from the $100,000 calculation.
To determine the fair market value of real estate, the law permits 167% of the property’s current assessed value on the county land books, as shown on the current property tax ticket, to serve as the appropriate amount.
Harrison County’s Clerk has already set up a sample online form to be used for small estates under the new law. Other counties will likely do the same. Checking out Harrison County‘s form at http://countyclerk.harrisoncountywv.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/West-Virginia-Small-Estates-Affidavit-form.pdf can provide a way to evaluate the information needed.
To carry out the simplified estate administration when the appropriate amounts of real and personal property are involved, the next consideration is whether the decedent left a will.
With a will, the executor or personal representative named in it can present the document at the county courthouse 30 days or more following the decedent’s death. If the estate has not previously been opened by someone else and the asset amounts are appropriate, the small estate administration process can begin.
The personal representative, now called an Authorized Successor, must present a certified death certificate, a list of the estate assets and their value to prove the estate qualifies and information about the will’s beneficiaries in order to handle the estate. Beyond that, no other reporting is involved, and no closing report is needed.
If the decedent did not leave a will, anyone who will inherit from the estate, based on West Virginia’s intestacy law at WV Code sec. 42-1-3 and -3A, is eligible to handle the estate.
The potential successor can go to the courthouse to open the estate after a 60-day period has expired following the decedent’s death and no one else has already opened the estate.
To qualify to handle a small estate without a will, a certified death certificate, a list of the appropriate assets and their value, along with the potential heirs as governed by the intestate law, must be filed by the successor at that time.
Small estates will not be listed with other estates in newspapers to give 90 days’ legal notice to creditors. Instead, creditors have two years from the date of the decedent’s death to file a claim against the estate or its heirs.
A certificate of administration will be issued to the qualifying successor for estate matters and will remain in effect for six months.
A written objection may be filed at the County Clerk’s office by anyone with an interest in the estate within 30 days of the certificate of administration being mailed to the estate’s beneficiaries.
With or without a will, as the funds are collected and after all estate debts are paid off, distributions can be made to the appropriate individuals called distributees. No additional reporting is needed by the county or state governments for small estate administration.
When a distributee does not feel that the estate administration has been handled appropriately, they can file a lawsuit in magistrate court on the issue.
These simplified procedures can assure that the decedent’s property is handled quickly and with a minimal amount of formality.
For questions on estate administration or other legal issues, state residents age 60 and over may contact West Virginia Senior Legal Aid at 800–229–5068 for free assistance from the staff attorney.