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10 Steps to Estate Settlement

Elderly couple speaking with a representative

A specific process must occur to properly settle a loved one’s estate, but many people may find it confusing, especially during this particularly stressful time. We are here to meet you where you are and support you through the estate settlement process. The following steps provide a general overview of the estate settlement process in North Carolina.

1. Create an inventory of all assets owned by the decedent

Use the Property Worksheet to gather this information. If your loved one had individually held assets, you will likely need documentation from the clerk of superior court to transfer ownership of this property.

2. Contact the clerk of superior court

Contact the clerk of superior court in the county in which the decedent resided or owned real property. The clerk of superior court will determine whether a personal representative needs to be appointed based on the assets owned by the decedent.

3. Discuss options for abbreviated estate settlement

There may be an option for a simpler estate settlement process, depending on the value of the estate’s assets and the persons entitled to benefit from the estate.

4. Determine whether a year’s allowance should be provided

The decedent’s surviving spouse and dependent children are entitled to a year’s allowance, which will be paid from the estate’s probate property. Generally, you should apply for any year’s allowance within one year after death.

5. Take control of the decedent’s property

Provide a final copy of the death certificate and any clerk-issued documentation to the decedent’s financial institutions to close or retitle accounts.

Determine if you need to open a deposit account in the estate's name. If so, obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. Application options for EINs can be found at

6. Publish notice to creditors

Depending on the type of estate administration, publishing a notice to creditors may be required.

A notice to creditors is a newspaper publishing that gives notice of death and asks the decedent’s creditors (all persons, firms, and corporations) to make claims against the estate. 

The notice must state a date (at least 90 days in the future) by which creditors must submit claims.

7. File a 90-day inventory

File a detailed inventory of the decedent’s real and personal property, financial information, etc., within 90 days from the date of your appointment as the personal representative. 

This inventory must include the estimated value of each property type, copies of account signature cards, and date of death balances. Sometimes, a professional appraisal may be necessary for real or personal property.

8. Pay the decedent’s debts in priority order

To settle the estate, use the decedent’s assets to pay claims. There is a specific order in which claims must be paid. The clerk of superior court can provide additional guidance about the priority order for claims. If you need to use the decedent’s real property or non-probate assets to pay debts, petition the clerk of superior court for the right to acquire those assets.

9. Distribute the decedent’s remaining property

Once you have paid all claims and appropriate estate expenses, distribute the remaining property. If the decedent left a Will, distribute property following the Will. If there is no Will, distribute the property per North Carolina General Statutes. 

Always obtain receipts for claims, estate expenses paid, and distributions.

10. File all necessary taxes and accountings

As the personal representative, you are responsible for filing the decedent’s individual and estate tax returns. Therefore, you may need to seek advice from a tax professional.

If the estate administration takes longer than a year, you must provide an annual accounting to the clerk of superior court.

Before closing the estate, the clerk of superior court will require a final accounting. This accounting will include a detailed list of all estate transactions and copies of checks, statements, and receipts.

When the clerk of superior court is satisfied with the final accounting, they will release you from serving as the personal representative.

Common estate settlement terminology

  • Administrator: A person appointed by the clerk of superior court to represent a decedent who passed away without a Will. The administrator will settle the estate by paying debts and distributing assets according to the laws of intestate succession.
  • Clerk of superior court: An officer of the court in each county with jurisdiction over the administration and settlement of estates and probate of Wills.
  • Creditor: A person or company to whom a debt is owed.
  • Decedent: A person who has passed away.
  • Estate: All of the money and other property a person owns at death. 
  • Executor: A person appointed by the clerk of superior court to represent a decedent who passed away with a valid Will. The executor will settle the estate by paying debts and distributing assets according to the decedent’s Will.
  • Heir: A person who inherits real or personal property under the law of intestate succession.
  • Intestate succession: The laws that govern how a decedent’s property is distributed if they pass without a valid Will.
  • Non-probate assets: Generally, these assets are not subject to administration by the personal representative. These assets include property the decedent owned jointly with the right of survivorship or with named beneficiaries.
  • Personal representative: A person appointed by the clerk of superior court to represent the decedent and settle their estate by paying debts and distributing assets. Executors and administrators are personal representatives.
  • Probate: The process by which the clerk of superior court determines whether there is a valid Will and oversees the estate administration process. The clerk of superior court will appoint a personal estate representative during this process.
  • Probate assets: Subject to administration by the personal representative. Generally, these assets include property that the decedent owned individually.
  • Testate: The decedent died with a valid Will.