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Jointly-owned assets may escape estate administration & probate

In Georgia and other jurisdictions, when the first spouse dies the surviving spouse will become the owner of each asset, real or personal, that has been owned jointly with the deceased spouse. This is generally called a tenancy by the entirety. It means that the totality of the asset is owned simultaneously by the husband and the wife, and when one of them dies, it does not disturb title but full fee simple title resides in the survivor by what is called the "operation of law." These assets are not subject to estate administration & probate because they are owned by the survivor and will be accounted for on his or her death.

The same principle also applies to non-married persons who have jointly-owned property that is designated with the "right of survivorship." Joint ownership assets are also therefore generally exempt from the deceased person's estate.  Regarding a husband and wife situation, if the deceased spouse owned all of his or her assets jointly as husband and wife, the survivor will become the owner instantly and no probate estate will have to be started.

However, if the deceased spouse had assets in his or her name alone at the time of death, then all such assets must be accounted for by filing a probate estate. There are informal probate estates for minimally valued assets. For somewhat larger estates, the assets may be administered by the decedent's personal representative through an informal estate.

In the latter case, the personal representative will have the heirs sign releases and refunding bonds assuring that they have studied the final accounting and approve the distribution of assets. This will be the standard format for most estates in Georgia and other jurisdictions unless there is a specific legal issue requiring a formal accounting before the probate court. Some people believe that estate administration and probate is never needed when the first spouse dies. However, it all depends whether there were separate assets owned at death. 

Source:, "Probating your spouse's will", Sept. 18. 2016

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