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My sister died unexpectedly. She has no will and no assets other than a truck (paid for). She does have a large amount of debt.

Lansing, MI |

Do we need to sell the truck to pay a little on the debt? How do we handle the debtor's inquiries? What do we need to be concerned with other than the truck?
She also was named on the deed to our house, but each person listed states "rights to the survivor". We are assuming that all we have to do is bring a death certificate to the courthouse to get her name taken off the deed,and that it is not considered part of her estate.
Do we need to make an appointment to see an attorney?

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Attorney answers 4


I'm sorry for your loss.

If the debts greatly exceed the assets, it might not even make sense to do any sort of estate proceeding. If you do commence an administration proceeding and the only asset is the truck, you are probably going to find that the process is frustrating and stressful. In any event, you can inform the creditors that the only way they are going to be satisfied is to take pennies on the dollar.

If a deed was held in two or more names, and each person was listed jointly with right of survivorship, then the property is transferred essentially by operation of law. In any event, one does not bring the death certificate to the courthouse, because court personnel are not responsibe for drafting deeds. Just have an attorney draft a new deed -- or leave it alone for the time being, because there is nothing that need be done immediately.

Good luck to you.

Michael S. Haber is a New York attorney. As such, his responses to posted inquiries, such as the one above, are limited to his understanding of law in the jurisdiction in which he practices and not to any other jurisdiction. In addition, no response to any posted inquiry should be deemed to constitute legal advice, nor to constitute the existence of an attorney/client or other contractual or fiduciary relationship, inasmuch as legal advice can only be provided in circumstances in which the attorney is able to ask questions of the person seeking legal advice and to thus gather appropriate information.


A decedent's estate is subject to the debts incurred by the decedent and also the expenses of the burial and of administration of the estate. The truck is an asset of her estate. You do not indicate its value but that will be relevant. You do not indicate if you, the decedent or other relatives paid the burial expenses. If other than the decedent, who ever paid will be entitled to be paid prior to worrying about expenses incurred during her lifetime. Depending on the value of the truck, her estate may qualify as a statutory "Small Estate" and may not be required to be administered in the same fashion as a larger estate. With regard to the house, if she had debts at the time names other than hers were added to the title, there could be a question of a fraudulent transfer (a technical term, not an implication of fraud on her part) which could make the house subject to her debts. If the title to the house was joint with rights of survivorship prior to the debts being incurred or any liens against the title filed, then at her death, title will pass to the joint owners by operation of law. Recording the death certificate with the register of deeds will act as a notice to the world that her interest in the property has terminated.

I have stated a number of points which could exist but I do not know if any of them are applicable. You would have to consult with an attorney and discuss these issues with the attorney to see if any of them apply. Probably this process could be accomplished in a half hour, if you have the appropriate information available.

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You can transfer the truck to the next of kin at any Secretary of State office. The only representation that you have to make to do that is that there is not, and will not be, a probate proceeding for her estate. The SOS will inquire into the value of the vehicle and will prevent the transfer if the value exceeds the allowable limit (it is high). From the facts you presented, it doesn't appear to be an issue in your case.

Once you transfer the vehicle, there will be no other assets, hence no estate to probate. You may advise the creditors of this. Heirs are not liable for a decedents debts, only the probate estate, and possibly a living trust, would be.

The real estate already belongs to the surviving co-owners, if the deed is worded as you describe. To make it a public record, the death certificate must be recorded at the register of deeds (not the court). This may, or may not be in your county courthouse, but it is not a function of the court. The Register of Deeds is a separate office. There is a fee, I believe it is $14, to record a death certificate. Call first, or check their website.

This isn't a complicated situation.

This answer is not specific legal advise. No attorney client relationship has been established. It is general commentary on the question presented, without the benefit of a full disclosure of all relevant facts. Seek an in-person consultation with a licensed professional.


More information is needed before anyone can give you an accurate answer to your questions. The extent of the assets and debts would need to be known, the title to the assets, etc. The title to the assets would determine whether probate is necessary and/or what form of probate proceeding may be required. There are exemptions and allowances that may also be available that would take precedence over creditor claims, even if probate is required.

Generally, creditors can only make claims against a probate estate. If an estate is not necessary, (and it would not be, if the truck is the only asset), then the creditors are basically out of luck.

James Frederick