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Losing a Spouse/Parent

Transferring a Small Estate Without Probate

 Probating an estate in Arizona is far less complicated and expensive than in many other states.  While the majority of states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code and abolished their estate and inheritance taxes, there are still about 20 states that charge heirs for the privilege of inheriting even small estates.   Arizona has no estate or inheritance tax.  Federal law allows an individual dying in 2017 to leave up to $5.49 million dollars to heirs with no federal estate or gift tax penalty.

That makes it possible to probate an estate of up to $5.49 Million on your own by using the forms in the court’s self-help center.  You will need to pay the court’s filing fee and you may also need to pay for certified copies of documents.  With these expenses in mind, you can handle your own probate for less than $500.00.  However, if the deceased’s affairs are complicated and there are multiple heirs, you will need to involve a lawyer to guide you through the process.  People with estates exceeding $5.49 million almost always need a lawyer to sort through investments and handle the tax implications of inheritance.  This article is focused on small estates, people with less than $75,000 in probate assets.

Determining if the Estate Qualifies for Transfer by Affidavit

What are “probate assets?”  Probate assets are those personal properties the deceased holds in his or her name alone. A stock, an automobile, or a savings account with only the deceased’s name on the title is a probate asset.  Bank accounts that are POD (pay on death) accounts; joint savings, checking or investment accounts are not subject to probate.  Vehicles with a second person on the title or a beneficiary designation and life insurance policies with a named beneficiary also fall outside probate.  None of these joint or pay on death assets are included in calculating the size of the probate estate.  If you add up all the assets subject to probate, and the total is $75,000 or less, Arizona law permits heirs to use a simple and inexpensive process to handle the estate.  It is called an “Affidavit for Collection of all Personal Property.”

When my mother died, all her bank accounts and CDs were joint accounts with either my name or my brother’s name on the account along with hers.  She was living in an assisted living facility and no longer had a car or owned a home.  Her life insurance policies designated both my brother and me as beneficiaries.  She had one investment account in her name alone.  That account contained $45,000.  Because everything else she owned was held jointly with other family members, her probate assets consisted of $45,000.  That meant we did not have to file a probate.  My brother and I were able to file an affidavit as authorized by Arizona Revised Statute, Section 14-3971, and handle the estate with little expense and paperwork.

The Procedure to Probate a Small Estate By Affidavit

The affidavit process is set out clearly in the statutes.  A.R.S. §14-3971 states the affidavit cannot be used until at least 30 days have elapsed since the death.  Additional requirements for using the Affidavit process are these:  There has been no personal representative (Executor) appointed by the court, and the value of the personal property does not exceed $75,000.  Personal property is basically anything other than real estate.  This procedure can also be used if up to $75,000 in additional personal property is discovered after a traditional probate is closed.  In this second instance, the statute requires that the personal representative has been discharged and the probate closed for more than a year.

The claimants to the estate fill out a form called “Affidavit for Collection of All Personal Property.”  You can find this form in the self-help section of the Superior Court’s website.  You look for www.azcourts.gov , click on Superior Court, then, click on the county where you live.  Access the self-help section of the county Superior Court’s website and search under the probate forms and instructions.  Fill out the Affidavit and sign it before a notary or in front of a County Clerk.  Then, take the signed and notarized affidavit to the bank, the deceased employer (if wages are owed), or other institution holding the deceased person’s personal property.  Some financial institutions may require that the Affidavit be certified by the Court.  If so, you will need to go to the Clerk of the Court, pay the fee, which is currently $27.00, and have your Affidavit certified.  You may also need a copy of the death certificate when you present your Affidavit.  You can mail copies of the Affidavit and death certificate to those institutions that are not local. The Affidavit will also enable the DMV to change the title on any vehicle owned by the deceased to reflect the change in ownership.

The Affidavit requires you to explain your relationship to the deceased and state why you are entitled to collect the personal property. It asks if the deceased has a Will and if you are named in the Will.  My brother and I used the Affidavits (one for each of us) to change the title on mom’s bank accounts and to liquidate her one investment.  Even though several of her accounts were joint accounts with us, we presented the Affidavits and death certificate to remove her name and transfer the accounts to our names alone.  My brother and I are close, so there was no squabbling over dividing property. You cannot use the Affidavit if there are family disputes or quarrels over who gets what.  If there is animosity and dissent, you may have to go through probate to sort it out.

As we age we need to think carefully about how we want our estate handled at our death.  Adding family members to the title of your vehicle or on your bank accounts is a big risk.  Once you own those accounts jointly with another person, the co-owner has equal rights to the vehicle or the money in the account.  Consider joint accounts only if you are absolutely certain you can trust the other person to have your best interests at heart.  There have been far too many instances where a child or a sibling walks away with all the money and leaves the original account owner with a zero balance.  That is not a risk you want to take.  A safer option is to make your bank   accounts POD accounts.  POD (payable on death) accounts cost nothing to create; there is no limit on the amount the account can contain; and the beneficiary has no right to the money so long as you are alive.  The one downside is that you cannot name an alternate beneficiary. 

Automobiles can be handled in much the same way by using a beneficiary designation for vehicle transfer upon death.  You can download the simple form from the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles website.  You simply fill out the form, have your signature acknowledged in front of a notary and present the form at MVD stapled to the current vehicle title.  MVD will then issue a new title with the beneficiary designation.  Beneficiary designations are a much safer way to transfer title upon your death than joint ownership.

Affidavit for Transfer of Title to Real Property

There is also a form Affidavit for Transfer of Title to Real Property, but this one is a bit more complicated.  It can be filed by a spouse, minor child or adult heir.  The Affidavit for Transfer cannot be filed with the court until at least 6 months after the death.  The person or persons signing the Affidavit must attest that there is no personal representative appointed by the court or that the probate has been closed for over a year and the personal representative has been discharged.  The signers must attest that the property is worth $100,000 or less after all liens and encumbrances have been subtracted.  They must attest that no one other than those signing the Affidavit have a right to the property and that no taxes are due.  The Affidavit allows the signers to claim the allowance in lieu of homestead ($18,000), exempt property ($7,000), and family allowance.  Once completed, the Affidavit must be filed with the court along with the original probate cover sheet and the original Will (if one exists). There is more detail on the process on the instruction sheet located on the Superior Court’s self-help center.

The affidavit process is a useful and practical tool for people with small estates.  It saves paperwork and the time and cost of probating an estate.


Ebeling, Ashlea. “IRS Announces 2017 Estate and Gift Tax Limites: The $11 Million Tax Break.” Forbes, 25 Oct. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/ashleaebeling/2016/10/25/irs-announces-2017-estate-and-gift-tax-limits-the-11-million-tax-break/#1f4ed2c63b70. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017

Randolph, Mary. “Payable-on Death (POD) Accounts: The Basics.” NOLO, www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/avoid-probate-book/chapter1-1.html. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017

“Motor Vehicle Services.” Arizona Department of Transportation, www.azdot.gov/mvd. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017

“Superior Court.” Arizona Judicial Branch, www.azcourts.gov/AZ-Courts/Superior-Court. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017

This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.

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