Do I Need a Death Certificate to Open an Estate in Michigan?

Close up of death certificate - do I need a death certificate to open an estate in Michigan?

In the moments after a family member’s death, the need to open an estate for them is probably not the first thing on your mind. But in the days and weeks that follow, you will come to realize that you need to take steps to settle their estate—pay any bills they had outstanding at the time of their death, and distribute their remaining assets. Many people have never had to do this, and may have no idea how to open an estate. In this blog post, we’ll talk about why it’s so important to open an estate, the documents needed to open an estate, and how to start estate administration.

Do You Have to Open an Estate When Someone Dies?

A person’s “estate” consists of all the assets and debt that they had at the time they died. When we speak of “opening an estate,” we are talking about starting a legal process in the probate court to settle the deceased person’s debts and distribute their remaining assets.

Assets that the deceased person (decedent) owned solely in their own name are subject to probate. Assets in a trust or that are held jointly with someone else with a right of survivorship do not. Jointly-held assets may include real estate or bank accounts, among other things. Most people have at least some assets that would have to go through probate.

Depending on the amount of assets in the estate, and who would inherit them, a simplified probate process may be available. An experienced probate lawyer can help you understand what assets do and do not need to go through probate, and what probate options are available to you. A probate attorney can also help you to open and administer the probate estate.

The Probate Process in Michigan

If your deceased family member had any assets subject to probate, it is important to open a probate estate in the probate court for the Michigan county in which they last lived. Going through this process properly means that the decedent’s creditors are barred from appearing months later to demand payment from estate funds that have already been distributed.

Family members must act relatively promptly to open a probate estate. If they do not, under Michigan probate law, a creditor of the deceased or a public administrator can do so. That takes control of the estate out of family members’ hands.

It is almost always preferable for family members to have the power to manage their loved one’s estate, which usually requires opening a probate estate. Of course, in order to open an estate for a deceased person, you have to prove that they are deceased. That’s where an official death certificate comes in.

Documents Needed to Open an Estate

An official death certificate is legal proof of a death sufficient to open a Michigan probate estate. If you do not have one on hand, you can order a death certificate from the State of Michigan. As of this writing, the cost for the certified death certificate is $34, but there may be other fees added if you order online or request expedited mailing. It can also take weeks to receive a copy of a death certificate from the state, and you may not want to wait, especially if family members need access to estate funds to pay mortgages or other urgent expenses.

While a death certificate is the preferred form of proof, the probate court will also allow other forms of documentation of a death. These may include:

  • Obituary
  • Death notice/funeral notice
  • Memorial information
  • Letter from funeral home or medical examiner’s office
  • Medical records
  • Newspaper article regarding an accident- or crime-related death.

In addition to proving that the person whose estate you are trying to probate actually died, you will also need to prove to the probate court that you are opening the probate case in the proper venue. For instance, if the decedent’s last domicile was in Washtenaw County, you cannot file the probate case in Oakland County, even if that is where you or other heirs live.

If the form of proof of death you submit to the probate court to open an estate does not list the decedent’s last residence, you may need to submit proof of domicile as well. That could be as simple as providing the decedent’s driver license, current voter registration, or a recent utility bill showing their home address.

If you use alternative documentation of the decedent’s death and domicile, you should attach it to the Application for Probate that you file in the probate court. You may also wish to include a letter explaining why you are submitting documentation other than a death certificate. The court may allow you to open an estate, but request or require you to obtain an official death certificate and file it at a later date.

Suzanne R. Fanning, PLLC: Experienced Michigan Probate Attorneys

If you have further questions about opening an estate after the death of a loved one or need help opening a probate estate, please contact Suzanne R. Fanning PLLC. Our office regularly assists family members outside Michigan and those within the state with Michigan probate matters.