Short Answer: You generally need a bank account in the name of the deceased person’s estate to cash an estate check, even for small estates. However, you may also be able to contact the payor or use a small estate affidavit to get the check reissued in your name. If the estate is closed, you may need to petition the court to reopen it. For more details about how to cash an estate check, see below.
How to Cash an Estate Check
If an estate receives payments, the executor (also known as the administrator or personal representative) typically needs to set up a checking account in the estate’s name. With an estate account, the executor can endorse and deposit checks, later distributing the funds in accordance with the will or probate result. You generally can’t cash an estate check using your personal bank account, even if you’re the executor or sole beneficiary of the estate, or you had a joint account with the deceased.
Cashing an estate check can be complicated if there is no estate, the estate is too small to require a formal probate process, or you receive the check after the estate is closed. We detail your options in each of these cases, plus how to open an estate account, below.
When There Is No Estate or a Small Estate
In the case of a small or nonexistent estate that doesn’t legally require probate, try contacting the check’s payor directly. Let them know that there’s no estate account or executor and that the estate won’t go through probate. With documentation, the payor may be able to rewrite the check to you, probate lawyers in Colorado and New York told us. For example, checks drawn on the U.S. Treasury (such as recurring benefit payments or tax refunds) must be returned to the certifying agency for negotiation.
Some banks will also allow you to cash a check with a small estate affidavit and death certificate rather than opening an estate account. However, policies vary by bank, and estate laws vary by state. You’ll need to look into your state’s limits regarding which estates qualify as “small,” and you may want to consult an attorney to determine if you should open an estate account.
After the Estate Is Closed
If you receive a check after closing an estate, you may need to reopen the estate. The bank may allow you to negotiate the check if the estate is closed, but the estate’s bank account is still open. However, if both the estate and the estate account are closed, you may need a court order to reopen the bank account and deposit or cash the check.
Keep in mind that probate laws vary by state. Some state codes include special provisions that allow banks to pay out checks after an estate closes; others require reopening due to receiving or discovering new assets (including checks). The court’s final judgment regarding the distribution of assets may also include a provision that allows you to distribute checks without reopening the estate after it closes.
If you’re unsure whether you should reopen the estate, it’s best to consult a probate lawyer before attempting to cash or deposit the check.
Opening an Estate Account
An estate account is a temporary bank account in the name of the estate. Otherwise, it’s a normal bank account; you can open a checking account to cash and write checks or open other account types like a savings account or money market account if needed. A bank representative can help you find the right type of account for your situation.
To open an estate account, you’ll need a copy of the death certificate, proof that you’re the representative of the estate, and an IRS-issued tax identification number for the estate. (You’ll need the tax identification number — known as the EIN — for other estate management duties like tax returns, too.) To get an EIN, fill out Form SS-4 and submit it to the IRS. Be sure to keep a copy for your records.
We contacted the following large financial institutions to confirm that they offer estate accounts:
- Ally Bank
- Bank of America
- Bank of the West
- BMO Harris Bank
- Charles Schwab
- Citizens Bank
- Fifth Third Bank
- First National Bank
- First Republic Bank
- Flagstar Bank
- Huntington Bank
- Navy Federal Credit Union
- TCF Bank
- TD Ameritrade
- TD Bank
- U.S. Bank
- Wells Fargo
Note that bank representatives told us you can’t typically open an estate account online; you’ll need to visit a branch, preferably in the state where the deceased person lived. (There are some exceptions to this, such as Fidelity, which offers a downloadable estate account application.) See our related research for a list of the best banks for estate accounts.