By Associate Attorney Danielle Nodar
If you pass away without a will in North Carolina, there are statutes that govern who will serve as your executor and who will inherit your estate. However, dying without a well-written will can leave your loved ones with a variety of legal hurdles to overcome.
The first article of this series discusses who will be responsible for administering your estate if you pass away without a will and what are some of the issues they may face when trying to get appointed by the probate court. The next article in this series will discuss how property is distributed if you die without a will in North Carolina.
When you die without a will, you are deemed to have died “intestate.” Each state has its own intestacy laws, which are the “default” option that outlines major decisions in the probate process, such as who can serve as your executor and their qualification requirements. The appointment of the executor is the first step in probating an estate. The executor is responsible for collecting all of your remaining assets at death, paying all of your legally enforceable debts and expenses out of those assets, and distributing any remaining assets to your heirs. A court will never appoint an executor who is a convicted felon, incapacitated, or under the age of 18, but generally, if you have a will, you can name anyone, and the court will respect your decision.
If you die without a will, the clerk of court will appoint someone in the following order: (1) a surviving spouse; (2) any heir; (3) any next of kin, with the person who is of closer kinship under having priority; (4) any creditor of the decedent; (5) any person of good character residing in the county who applies therefor; and (6) any other person of good character. The person the court appoints could be someone you don’t particularly want to handle your estate, and you could avoid that by naming them in your will. Also, there could be issues with relatives who are the same degree of kinship arguing over who should serve, which could cause unnecessary delays and expenses if the dispute cannot be resolved without attorneys.
The other issue is that, generally, a bond is required of the executor of an estate. This bond is an insurance policy, and it is required to protect the beneficiaries of the estate in the event that the executor breaches their duties in administering the estate, such as by running off with the estate assets. The executor must be able to pass a credit check in order to obtain the bond and pay the bond premium of out-of-pocket (which can sometimes be quite high) because they will not have access to your assets before they are appointed executor by the probate court.
There are two ways to avoid the bond. First, all of the heirs could sign a document waiving the bond requirement, but this requires them to all be in agreement (which sometimes doesn’t happen) and they all must be age 18 or older and otherwise have capacity. The second way to avoid the bond is to waive the requirement in a will. This makes is easier from the outset for your desired executor to serve. After all, they’re doing a job for your benefit and the benefit of your family.
Lastly, another benefit of having a well-written will is that attorneys can put helpful provisions in the will that don’t otherwise exist under the default intestacy statutes that make it easier for the executor to do their jobs. For example, we can write in the will that the executor can sell a house if needed to pay debts of the estate; whereas, if the same person died without a will, the executor would have to file a motion with the court and having a hearing (costing them money, and likely requiring an attorney) in order to sell the house.
If you have questions about intestacy in North Carolina, drafting a will, or ensuring that a person of your choosing is able to manage your estate once you have passed away, please call Jesson & Rains.
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Kelly Rains Jesson