Probate Process and Timeline

If a person passes away with a last will and testament and estate plan in place (i.e., dying testate), their beneficiaries receive probate assets. The decedent's assets transfer to those named in their will. This is in line with the testator's wishes.

If the person passes away without a will (i.e., dying intestate), the state's intestate succession laws determine property distribution. These are the probate laws that define which relatives can inherit. State law governs most aspects of probate, estate administration, and intestacy.

Either way, the probate court oversees the probate and estate administration legal process. This probate administration process documents and distributes a decedent's estate after death.

The probate court judge will also settle legal disputes about the person's assets. These disputes may include disagreements over the administration of the estate or the validity of a will.

Appointing an Executor

Probate is the process of proving that a will is a valid will. The person who will be working with the court during the probate process is the executor. The will should name an executor, or the probate court can appoint one.

The executor is responsible for filing the will with the probate court. This individual also initiates the process to prove the will is valid.

The executor receives testamentary letters once the probate court determines the validity of the will. The probate timeline ends at this point. The estate has officially completed the probate process.

Probate Administration Without a Will

If the deceased person fails to leave a will, the probate court will appoint an interested party (administrator). This interested party will serve as the personal representative of the estate. They will receive letters of administration.

Estate Administration Process

Once appointed, the executor or administrator becomes the estate's personal representative. The estate administration process officially begins. Estate administration is the process of:

  • Gathering the assets of a decedent
  • Paying off all outstanding debts
  • Distributing any remaining assets to either the beneficiaries (decedent died with a will) or heirs (decedent died without a will)

Read on to learn about the basic probate and estate administration timeline and process.

How Long Does the Probate and Estate Administration Process Take?

It depends. A summary probate proceeding could take as little as four months. In many states, a typical probate and estate administration process may take up to two years. The probate process can take years to settle in an estate with contested issues or lawsuits.

With careful estate planning, an estate can be transferred outside of probate. For those estates that must go through probate, the timeline begins from the date of the decedent's death.

There are a lot of factors that can shorten or lengthen the probate and estate administration timeline, including:

  • Size of the estate, as many states have expedited proceedings for small estates
  • How much of the estate can be transferred outside of the probate process
  • Transfers that are made outside of probate — such as transfer on death deeds, payable on death bank accounts, trusts, and surviving spouse claims
  • Whether there are questions about the validity of the will, which could lead to a will contest
  • Whether there are conflicts among family members (heirs) and beneficiaries leading to a probate hearing
  • Real estate problems that would make it difficult to transfer title
  • Difficulty finding real property mentioned in the will
  • Mismanagement of estate property or the probate process by a fiduciary, such as a trustee or executor
  • Challenges to the legitimacy of some outstanding debts
  • Whether the decedent's estate has enough money to pay creditor claims or if estate assets must be sold first in order to do so
  • Tax problems that make it difficult to file the decedent's final income tax returns

And, of course, some delays in the probate process result from overloaded court dockets. But probate courts operate as efficiently as possible. They seek to move probate cases through the courts.

Estate Administration Timeline

The estate administration process begins when the executor presents the will for probate. It may also start when an interested party petitions a court to appoint them as an intestate decedent's estate administrator. The interested party petitions the probate court where the decedent lived or owned property.

Here's a general idea of when to handle specific steps for a typical estate administration. This basic timeline applies when no interested parties object. An interested party's objection to the will or petition could cause a delay.

Months After Death

Estate Administration Task Description

1 to 4 months

Notify people and institutions of the deceased person's date of death. Provide a copy of the death certificate to institutions such as:

1 to 4 months Prepare and file a "petition for probate" or a "petition for letters of administration" by:
  • Providing the probate court with the decedent's original will and any witness statements
  • Identifying all heirs, beneficiaries, and interested parties of the estate
  • Providing the probate court with the correct contact information for all interested parties

3 to 4 months

A court hearing on the petition may be scheduled. If so, gather all important evidence.

3 to 4 months

The probate court issues the following documents, as applicable:

  • Letters of administration
  • Letters testamentary
  • Final orders appointing the personal representative

3 to 5 months

File an estate bond (if ordered).

3 to 6 months

6 to 12 months

  • Complete estate inventory and appraisal of personal property to calculate the value of the estate.
  • Collect any owed rent or property allowances.
  • Initiate lawsuits to collect any debts owed to the estate.
  • Sell any real or personal property in an estate sale.
  • Gather and collect on any insurance policies in which the estate is a beneficiary.
  • Provide the heirs and beneficiaries with a copy of the estate inventory and/or an accounting of the estate.

6 to 12 months

Pay bills:

  • Funeral expenses
  • The decedent's final medical expenses
  • Legal fees associated with opening the estate, including attorney's fees and accountant fees
  • Federal income tax, state income tax, federal estate tax, and gift taxes, if any
  • Property taxes on any real property
  • Estate administration costs, including any fees owed to the personal representative
  • Family allowances

6 to 12 months

  • Accept or deny creditor claims. Enter into negotiations with outstanding creditors for any debt reductions.
  • Provide notice to franchise tax board (if the heir is an out-of-state resident).

7 to 15 months

  • Present the heirs and beneficiaries with a final accounting.
  • File a petition for final distribution and accounting.
  • Receive tax clearance letters from IRS.

8 to 16 months

  • Hold hearing on the petition for final distribution and accounting.
  • Get order approving final distribution and accounting.

9 to 18 months

  • Distribute assets to beneficiaries and heirs (including deeds transferring real property).
  • Request acknowledgments and release of liability from all beneficiaries and heirs.
  • Get final discharge order.

9 to 24 months

  • Finalize distribution of estate funds, concluding the estate administration.

Note: The above timeline may not apply to cases with more complicated issues or potential lawsuits.

Probate and Estate Administration Costs and Fees

The probate process and estate administration involve certain fees and costs. These can include:

  • Attorney's fees
  • Personal representative fees
  • Court costs

These fees typically come out of the estate itself. Probate can be costly and time-consuming. Thus, people look for options to avoid probate.

Get Legal Advice From a Probate Attorney

Navigating the probate process requires you to know and follow the rules and procedures found in your state's probate code. While court staff will be there to help, a probate lawyer can ensure the process runs as smoothly as possible, even when you face the unexpected. Some states require an attorney to proceed in probate court. Contact a local probate lawyer for help with the process.

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