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small estate proceeding

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By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Not all estates require a probate or full administration proceeding. A small estate proceeding,  also known as a Voluntary Administration, is a simplified Surrogate’s Court procedure. 

What estates qualify?

The  Voluntary Administration is available if the decedent passed away with $50,000 or less in  personal property. Personal property includes cars, cash, stocks — anything but real estate. The Voluntary Administration proceeding is not an option when the decedent owned real  property solely in their own name. It is available if the decedent died with or without a Will.  

Voluntary Administration is not only for decedents who had minimal assets. Sometimes  only certain assets were owned by the decedent in their sole name. This happens often with  married couples with joint bank accounts or who own real estate with rights of survivorship. A decedent may have named beneficiaries on most of their accounts. In such cases only some  property needs to pass through Surrogate’s Court. Other times a decedent conveyed most, but not all, of their property to a trust. If the assets left outside the trust are less than  $50,000, a Voluntary Administration is available.  

How to file

The small estate proceeding is initiated by filing of an “Affidavit of Voluntary  Administration.” The Petitioner is either the nominated Executor in the decedent’s Will or  the closest living relative when there is no Will. The Petitioner is asking the Court for the  authority to collect the decedent’s assets, pay off any debts, and distribute the property to  those with a legal right to inherit. If there was a Will, the beneficiaries named in the Will  inherit. If there was no Will, then the estate passes under the laws of intestacy. 

The Voluntary Administration Proceeding is less complex than a probate or full  administration proceeding. Consent and Waiver is not required from the decedent’s  distributees (heirs who will inherit under the estate). The Court only provides the  distributees with notice that the proceeding was filed. This avoids the expense of costly  litigation over the appointment of a fiduciary.  


The Voluntary Administration Proceeding has some drawbacks. The appointed  Administrator only has the authority to collect the specific assets listed on the Affidavit of  Voluntary Administration. Such broad authority is only available in a full probate or  administration proceeding. The Administrator does not have the broad authority to collect  and distribute any additional assets. If the Administrator finds assets not listed on the initial Affidavit, they have to go back to the court. 

Further, if the assets exceed $50,000, the Administrator must convert the proceeding to a full probate or Administration. For this reason, when there is uncertainty about the assets, it may be wise to proceed with a full  probate or administration proceeding.  

A small estate proceeding costs only $1 to file. While the Voluntary Administration  Proceeding is simple and inexpensive, mistakes can be costly. It is always a good idea to  consult with an experienced Estate attorney to ensure that a small estate proceeding is the  best way to proceed. 

Nancy Burner, Esq. is the founder and managing partner at Burner Law Group, P.C with offices located in East Setauket, Westhampton Beach, New York City and East Hampton.