Closing a bank account held by a deceased loved one may be done without administering the decedent’s estate through the probate court -- depending upon the amount on deposit at the time of death and the law of the state where the bank is located. This non-court procedure is often referred to as a “small estate affidavit.” Not all states provide for this non-court procedure, but all states will have a summary court procedure for small estates that may require nothing more than filing the affidavit with the court before seeking transfer of the account funds from the bank. (See Resource 1.)
Call the bank where the accounts are located and request information on its requirements for releasing the funds to you without probate. Presumably, the bank has dealt with this issue many times before and its legal department would instruct bank personnel on the law in this area. Also, ask if the bank provides a form of small estate affidavit that you can use.
Get a multiple copies of the death certificate from the county office that maintains vital records where the decedent died. Two copies are usually sufficient in most cases. You should have more than one in your possession in case the bank needs to keep a certified copy for its records. That way you still have a certified copy for future use. Also, consider asking the bank to accept a photocopy of the death certificate after having a chance to inspect the certified copy.
Review the law of the state where the decedent died regarding the use of a small estate affidavit. For example, California permits the use of the small estate affidavit if the value is less than $100,000 (see Reference 1) and with some diligent online searching, you may find usable forms. (See Reference 2.) Other states, like Texas, will permit the use of the small estate affidavit, but only after first filing it with the court for approval. (See Reference 3.) Also, Texas law only permits this procedure in estates valued at $50,000 or less.
Go to the bank with your completed small estate affidavit, after court approval if necessary, and also bring a certified copy of the death certificate, the account information, and photo identification for yourself. After presenting your documents and information, request that the account funds be transferred to you.
If the state law requires any court filing to authorize the use of the small estate affidavit, you should consult with an attorney to assist you with this procedure.
If there are multiple beneficiaries of the deceased's estate, and you suspect there may be disputes from one or more of them, you should consider probating the estate so as to avoid any future claims by a beneficiary against you. The probate court procedure will be the beneficiary's forum for raising any dispute and your protection against any criticism of your actions.