Determine if you need to hire an attorney

Settle the Estate

Settling an Estate can be a challenging legal process and so a Probate Attorney is often hired to help.

Though not required by law, an attorney can help provide expertise and oversight to an Executor and Surviving Family, as well as confidence that the estate will be settled properly.

Ultimately, if you are unsure whether you need an attorney, it is best to speak with one to get their advice.

Situations where an attorney may not be necessary

Situations where an attorney may be necessary

  • The estate does not qualify as a small estate based on its total value
  • The estate must pay federal or state Estate Taxes based on its total value
  • The extent of the deceased’s assets are unclear
  • The estate has debts greater than the total value of its assets (the estate is Insolvent
  • There were people left out of the Will who should have been included
  • There are multiple heirs and Beneficiaries
  • The heirs cannot get along or agree on how the estate should be administered
  • The Executor or Administrator does not have the time or ability to settle the estate on their own
  • The deceased owned a business that needs to be managed
  • The deceased owned real estate in more than one state or country

See if any of these situations apply to the deceased’s estate by answering the questions below.

Helpful Tips


Small estates are defined by the laws of the state where the deceased lived.

In order to qualify as a small estate, most states require that the total value of the estate not exceed a specific financial limit (e.g. $50,000).

Each state provides their own rules for calculating the total value of an estate.

For instance, some states require that the deceased’s home value count toward the total estate value, while others do not.

Some states also require that the deceased died intestate (without a will) in order to qualify as a small estate.

Estates must have a value under specific limits to qualify as a small estate.

Review what each state requires to qualify as a “small” estate: Alabama - $25,000 Alaska - $150,000 Arizona - $75,000 Arkansas - $100,000 California - $150,000 Colorado - $66,000 aConnecticut - $40,000 Delaware - $30,000 District of Columbia - $40,000 Florida - $75,000 Georgia - $10,000 Hawaii - $100,000 Idaho - $100,000 Illinois - $100,000 Indiana - $50,000 Iowa - $100,000 Kansas - $40,000 Kentucky - $15,000 Louisiana - $75,000 Maine - $20,000 Maryland - $50,000: $100,000 Massachusetts - $25,000 Michigan - $21,000 Minnesota - $50,000 Mississippi - $50,000 Missouri - $40,000 Montana - $50,000 Nebraska - $50,000 Nevada: $25,000 - $100,000 New Hampshire - $10,000 New Jersey - $50,000 New Mexico - $50,000 New York - $30,000 North Carolina - $30,000 North Dakota - $50,000 Ohio - $100,000 Oklahoma - $50,000 Oregon - $275,000 Pennsylvania - $50,000 Rhode Island - $15,000 South Carolina - $25,000 South Dakota - $50,000 Tennessee - $25,000 Texas - $75,000 Utah - $100,000 Vermont - $10,000 Virginia - $50,000 Washington - $100,000 West Virginia - $100,000 Wisconsin - $50,000 Wyoming - $200,000


If the estate does not have enough money to pay its debts, some debts still need to be paid.

While the order in which debts must be paid is determined by state law, each type of debt has its own priority.

Typically, debts must be paid in the following order:

  1. Estate taxes
  2. Attorney fees
  3. Executor compensation
  4. Burial and funeral costs
  5. Family allowance for dependents of the deceased
  6. Federal taxes
  7. Medical expenses
  8. Property taxes
  9. Secured debts, such as a mortgage or car loan
  10. Personal loans
  11. Credit card debt

An heir is a person who is legally entitled to inherit the Assets or property of a deceased person.

The term “heir” may be used interchangeably with the term Beneficiary.

Heirs can be named in a deceased person’s will, or determined by the laws of the state where the deceased lived.

Typically, heirs are the children, grandchildren, or other close relatives of the deceased.

Personal Considerations


Does the estate qualify as a "small estate"?


Then the probate process will likely be simpler, and require less paperwork than regular probate. As such, you are less likely to need the assistance of an attorney.

It is often cheaper, faster, and easier to administer a small estate, as most states have simplified procedures for estates with assets under a specific limit.

Often, Probate Courts provide fill-in-the-blank forms for executors to administer small estates which can typically be completed by the average person, without the assistance of an attorney.

Each state has different guidelines for what qualifies as a small estate and how to calculate the total value of the estate. See above for your state's value qualifications.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know While an attorney may not be necessary to assist with small estate probate, hiring an attorney is a matter of personal preference. The executor of the deceased’s estate may feel more comfortable administering the estate with the guidance of an attorney. Find attorneys near you at the links below.


The estate is considered a “regular” estate and will have to go through the full Probate process.

This includes verifying the will, paying debts and taxes, and giving assets to beneficiaries.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant It's likely that an attorney is needed to help guide the process because regular estate procedures are often more complex and time consuming than those of a small estate.

AutumnIcons_Providers.svgProviders Find Probate Attorneys near you at the links below.


If the estate qualifies as a "small" estate:

Then the probate process will likely be simpler, and require less paperwork than regular probate. As such, you are less likely to need the assistance of an attorney.

It is often cheaper, faster, and easier to administer a small estate, as most states have simplified procedures for estates with assets under a specific limit.

Often, Probate Courts provide fill-in-the-blank forms for executors to administer small estates which can typically be completed by the average person, without the assistance of an attorney.

Each state has different guidelines for what qualifies as a small estate and how to calculate the total value of the estate. See above for your state's value qualifications.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know While an attorney may not be necessary to assist with small estate probate, hiring an attorney is a matter of personal preference. The executor of the deceased’s estate may feel more comfortable administering the estate with the guidance of an attorney. Find attorneys near you at the links below.

If the estate does not qualify as a "small" estate:

The estate is considered a “regular” estate and will have to go through the full Probate process.

This includes verifying the will, paying debts and taxes, and giving assets to beneficiaries.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant It's likely that an attorney is needed to help guide the process because regular estate procedures are often more complex and time consuming than those of a small estate.

AutumnIcons_Providers.svgProviders Find Probate Attorneys near you at the links below.


Does the estate have debts greater than the value of its assets?


The estate is considered Insolvent.

This means that selling the estate's assets will not cover the cost of paying off the estate's debts. When this happens, some debts still need to be paid.

The priority of these debts and the order in which they must be paid is determined by state law.

An attorney will be able to help you with this process and negotiate with individuals and companies who are owed money by the estate on your behalf.

Find Probate Attorneys near you at the links below.


It will be easier to pay the debts of the estate using funds from the estate’s Assets.

Since the estate will not owe any people or companies money, an attorney may not be absolutely needed.

To determine whether the estate’s assets are greater than the estate’s debts, calculate the value of the estate’s debts. Then, calculate the value of the estate’s assets.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know An Appraiser may be helpful in determining the fair market value of certain assets, such as real estate and jewelry.


If the estate has debts greater than the value of its assets:

The estate is considered Insolvent.

This means that selling the estate's assets will not cover the cost of paying off the estate's debts. When this happens, some debts still need to be paid.

The priority of these debts and the order in which they must be paid is determined by state law.

An attorney will be able to help you with this process and negotiate with individuals and companies who are owed money by the estate on your behalf.

Find Probate Attorneys near you at the links below.

If the estate does not have debts greater than the value of its assets:

It will be easier to pay the debts of the estate using funds from the estate’s Assets.

Since the estate will not owe any people or companies money, an attorney may not be absolutely needed.

To determine whether the estate’s assets are greater than the estate’s debts, calculate the value of the estate’s debts. Then, calculate the value of the estate’s assets.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know An Appraiser may be helpful in determining the fair market value of certain assets, such as real estate and jewelry.


Are the deceased's assets unclear or not known?


Review the deceased’s personal documents and legal paperwork. These are often found in a safe, filing cabinet, or desk.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If you're unable to find any information about the deceased's assets, then speak with a Probate Attorney who can help uncover legal assets owned by the deceased.


It's less likely that an attorney will be needed to determine the location and value of the deceased’s assets.

It is wise to begin documenting the assets, as well as their market value. This information will be important during the legal probate process.


If the deceased's assets are unclear:

Review the deceased’s personal documents and legal paperwork. These are often found in a safe, filing cabinet, or desk.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If you're unable to find any information about the deceased's assets, then speak with a Probate Attorney who can help uncover legal assets owned by the deceased.

If the deceased's assets are clearly known:

It's less likely that an attorney will be needed to determine the location and value of the deceased’s assets.

It is wise to begin documenting the assets, as well as their market value. This information will be important during the legal probate process.


Were people left out of the will who should have been included?


Contact a Estate Attorney, as there is a greater chance the estate will be contested.

When an estate is contested, individuals disagree about the right way to have it administered or distribute its assets.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know To contest the Will, the person (or people) left out will have to file a lawsuit and prove they were supposed to be part of the Will. This can be a difficult and emotional process, so it is important to speak with an Estate Attorney.

For reference, people who are typically added to a Will include:

  • The spouse of the deceased
  • The children of the deceased (including adopted children)
  • Grandchildren of the deceased (including adopted grandchildren)
  • Business partners of the deceased (if the business is still operating)
  • Other immediate relatives, such as parents and siblings of the deceased

An attorney is less likely to be needed. Since no one was left out of the Will, there is less chance for conflict and disputes.


If there are people left out of the will who should have been included:

Contact a Estate Attorney, as there is a greater chance the estate will be contested.

When an estate is contested, individuals disagree about the right way to have it administered or distribute its assets.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know To contest the Will, the person (or people) left out will have to file a lawsuit and prove they were supposed to be part of the Will. This can be a difficult and emotional process, so it is important to speak with an Estate Attorney.

For reference, people who are typically added to a Will include:

  • The spouse of the deceased
  • The children of the deceased (including adopted children)
  • Grandchildren of the deceased (including adopted grandchildren)
  • Business partners of the deceased (if the business is still operating)
  • Other immediate relatives, such as parents and siblings of the deceased
If the will includes everyone who should be included:

An attorney is less likely to be needed. Since no one was left out of the Will, there is less chance for conflict and disputes.


Is there only a single heir to the estate?


You are less likely to need an attorney, as there is less room for dispute over the management of the estate.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about managing an Estate, see the “Start the probate process” section of the Guide.


The greater the possibility of disputes and conflict.

Disputes can lead to lawsuits over the estate, which will necessitate the assistance of a Probate Attorney.


If there is only a single heir to the estate:

You are less likely to need an attorney, as there is less room for dispute over the management of the estate.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about managing an Estate, see the “Start the probate process” section of the Guide.

If there is more than one heir to the estate:

The greater the possibility of disputes and conflict.

Disputes can lead to lawsuits over the estate, which will necessitate the assistance of a Probate Attorney.

Providers to Contact


Probate Attorneys Near You

Probate Attorneys help you determine the complexity of the estate and offer helpful guidance. They help you comply with state and federal probate laws, assist with paperwork, the probate process, and the financial aspects of probate.

No results in your area.

Estate Attorneys Near You

Estate Planning Attorneys help you plan for the transfer of your assets after death. They can help you get your estate organized and ensure your loved ones are provided for the way you want.

No results in your area.


Settle the Estate