The various ways to transfer an estate after someone passes away

After someone passes away, knowing who has the legal authority to handle their estate and how to transfer their assets is essential. While some estates are relatively straightforward, others may require lengthy and complex procedures. Understanding the various ways you can transfer an estate and the laws governing this process is essential. 

Joint ownership

When two people hold property or assets jointly, they are considered “joint owners,” meaning each has a legal right to the asset. Upon one joint owner’s death, the survivor automatically becomes the sole owner of the asset. This transfer happens without court involvement or probate proceedings, making it one of the simplest ways to transfer an estate after someone dies. The survivor must produce a death certificate and provide proof of the deceased’s ownership to transfer the asset.

Beneficiary designations

Beneficiary designations are commonly used with life insurance policies, IRAs, 401(k) plans, annuities, and other accounts. When someone passes away, the beneficiary listed on those documents will inherit the assets without court involvement or probate proceedings. It is important to note that beneficiary designations supersede wills and trusts when passing down assets after someone passes away. 

Wisconsin probate law

In Wisconsin, less than $50,000 may be handled through Wisconsin’s minor estate procedures without court involvement or probate proceedings. The Wisconsin probate law provides for simplified informal administration of an estate if the personal representative is appointed and all beneficiaries agree with the division of assets. To distribute the assets amongst heirs, the survivor must provide a copy of the will and other documents, such as the deceased’s marriage license and birth certificates, to show heirship.


Trusts are legal documents in which someone transfers property or assets into a trust to be managed by another individual on behalf of designated beneficiaries. Upon the trustor’s death, the trustee will manage and distribute assets according to the trust documents. The probate court may be involved in court proceedings if there are contested issues or disputes concerning trusts. Trustees must provide the court with a copy of the death certificate, proof that they are legally entitled to act as trustees, and an inventory of all trust assets.


Under Wisconsin law, a will must be filed in probate court and handled by a personal representative to distribute property or assets after someone passes away properly. The personal representative will ensure any debts or taxes are paid and distribute the remaining assets according to the deceased’s wishes as stated in their will. To transfer an estate through a will, the survivor must provide an original copy of the deceased’s last will and other documents, such as marriage licenses and birth certificates, to prove heirship.

Intestate succession

If someone passes away without a will, their estate is considered “intestate.” In Wisconsin, intestate succession laws determine how an estate should be divided amongst heirs, such as spouses, children, parents, siblings, and other relatives. The personal representative must file for probate to transfer the assets of an intestate estate. The personal representative is typically the deceased’s closest relative or a qualified individual appointed by the court.

Retirement plans

Retirement plans, including 401(k)s and IRAs, are typically passed down according to beneficiary designations that supersede any provisions in the deceased’s will. The surviving spouse is usually prioritized if they are named the primary beneficiary. If there is no surviving spouse, the assets will go to the designated beneficiaries or, if none are listed, to the estate. The survivor must provide a copy of the death certificate and proof of ownership to transfer an IRA or 401(k).

Joint tenancy

Under Wisconsin law, property owned jointly with the right of survivorship will automatically transfer to the surviving joint tenant upon the death of one owner. To transfer an asset in this way, you must provide a copy of the deceased’s death certificate, proof of ownership, and documents showing that the property was held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Once these documents are presented to the appropriate authorities, the asset will be transferred without probate.

Transfer on death accounts

Transfer on-death (TOD) accounts, such as bank and brokerage accounts, allow owners to designate a beneficiary who will automatically receive any assets in the account upon the owner’s death. The survivor must provide a copy of the deceased’s death certificate and proof of ownership to transfer these assets. The designated beneficiary will then become the sole owner of the account with no need for probate or other court proceedings.

Small estate affidavits

Small estate affidavits allow for the simplified transfer of personal property valued at less than $50,000 without probate. To transfer an estate through this method, the survivor must provide a copy of the deceased’s death certificate and proof that they are entitled to inherit the assets. You will then file the affidavit with the local probate court, which will determine whether it is eligible for simplified transfer.




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