When a loved one passes away, it’s not uncommon to wonder when assets and property will be distributed, especially if you’re a beneficiary. Yet, estate beneficiaries generally don’t receive any assets or property until affairs related to the estate, such as paying outstanding bills and other expenses, have been taken care of. Depending on the estate, distributions occur before the estate closes. It usually takes about one year for an estate to be settled, but complex and/or large estates may take several years.

How Do I Claim Property As An Estate Beneficiary?

Generally, you would need to fill out a claim form and provide a copy of the death certificate to the account, such as a bank or brokerage. An estate planning attorney with The Van Winkle Law Firm can review any account paperwork to determine how a claim should be made.

All Estate Distribution Follows A Process

While most estate distributions follow a standard process, partial distributions to beneficiaries and heirs may be made before the estate closes. To do so, the executor must receive permission from the Clerk of Court, if required in the jurisdiction, then wait for the Notice to Creditors period to expire. Valid claims against the estate are then paid before any distributions are made. Beneficiaries and heirs are required to sign a receipt acknowledging their acceptance of the partial distribution. This receipt is then filed with the Clerk of Court.

Standard estate distributions generally follow these eight steps.

1. Will Filed With Clerk Of Court

The will is required to be filed with the Clerk of Court in the last county of residence for the decedent. If you or someone else has been named estate executor in the will, the role must be approved through an application from the Clerk of Court. Once the application is approved, the executor will receive a letter to officially handle the estate.

2. Notify Creditors

A Notice to Creditors should be published in a local newspaper and include the date by which creditors need to file any claims against the estate. In North Carolina, the date is 90 days from publication of the notice. During this time, the executor usually establishes a bank account and a tax identification number for the estate. Outstanding bills, debts, and expenses are paid with the funds in this account.

3. Gather Assets Of The Estate

An inventory of the decedent's assets should be filed with the probate court — the Clerk of Superior Court in North Carolina — once all assets and property have been located. Because the inventory is required, it’s important to secure personal items, home furnishings, vehicles, and other tangible assets until the estate is settled. Beneficiaries and heirs may know they will receive an item but shouldn’t be allowed to take possession until the inventory is completed and filed with the court.

4. Pay One Year Allowance If Applicable

If the decedent has a surviving spouse and minor children, the State of North Carolina automatically entitles them to a one year allowance. The amount is $30,000 and is paid from the decedent’s personal property. Since the allowance is a priority claim, it’s paid before any estate debts and expenses and before assets are distributed to beneficiaries and/or heirs.

5. File The 90-Day Inventory

The 90-day inventory is a detailed list of the decedent’s assets at the time of death. The inventory should include the estimated value of each item. Included in the list are:

  • Bank accounts with amounts, including checking and savings accounts;
  • Tangible property, such as household items and vehicles;
  • Bonds, stocks, and other investments; and
  • Real estate property, including mobile homes.

6. Pay Estate Claims & Distribute Assets & Property

Once all claims, debts, and expenses have been paid, the remaining assets are distributed to beneficiaries and heirs under elder law directives from the will. Expenses are paid in the following order:

  • One-year allowance and justifiable estate administration expenses;
  • Claims for a specific lien against the estate;
  • Funeral expenses;
  • Burial plot and gravestone costs;
  • Federal estate and income taxes;
  • North Carolina estate and income taxes;
  • Liens placed on the estate from judgments;
  • Wages owed to employees; and
  • All other claims.

7. File Income Taxes For The Estate

The executor is also responsible for filing a final income tax return for the decedent and if necessary, a tax return for the estate. Generally, an estate needs to file a return if there was any type of income for the decedent, such as bank account interest, rent from real estate, and unpaid salary.

8. Close The Estate

To close the estate, the executor files a detailed transaction list with the Clerk of Superior Court and copies of all checks, receipts, and statements related to the estate. When the list is approved, the estate is closed.

Can An Estate Be Reopened?

Yes. This usually occurs when estate assets and/or property are discovered after the estate was closed or a will is contested. To reopen an estate, called subsequent administration, the executor needs to file a petition with the Superior Court. Once the petition is approved or a new executor is appointed by the Superior Court, the estate remains open until the matter has been addressed. Closing the estate then generally follows the same initial steps.