Probate Process and Timeline

If a person passes away with a will in place (testate), their property will be transferred to the beneficiaries named in the decedent's will. If the person passes away without a will (intestate), the property will be distributed according to their state's intestate succession laws. These are the laws that define which relatives can inherit.

Either way, the probate court will be in charge of the probate and estate administration process that documents and distributes a decedent's estate after death. The probate court judge will also be responsible for settling any legal disputes regarding the administration of the estate or the validity of a will.

The person who will be working with the court during the probate process is the person named as executor in the will. The executor is responsible for filing the will with the probate court and initiating the process to prove that the will is valid. Probate is the process of proving that a will is a valid will. Once the will has been determined to be a valid will, the executor will receive testamentary letters and the probate process is completed. If the deceased person failed to leave a will, the probate court will appoint an interested party to serve as the administrator of the estate and they will receive letters of administration.

Once both executors and administrators have officially been appointed to the estate, they are considered the personal representative of the estate, and the estate administration process officially begins. Estate administration is the process of gathering the assets of a decedent, paying off all the debts, and distributing any remaining property 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?

The answer is "it depends." A summary probate proceeding could take as little as four months. In many states, a typical probate and estate administration process will take up to one to two years from the date of the decedent's death. In an estate with contested issues or lawsuits, the process may take years to settle and conclude probate.

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

  • Size of the estate — many states have expedited proceedings for small estates.
  • How much of the estate can be transferred outside of the probate process (through transfer on death deeds, payable on death bank accounts, trusts, surviving spouse claims, etc.). With careful estate planning, it's possible that most of an estate can be transferred outside of probate.
  • 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 are the result of backed-up court dockets. But probate courts operate as efficiently as possible to move the probate case through the courts quickly.

Estate Administration Timeline

The estate administration process begins when the executor presents the will for probate or when an interested party petitions a court to be appointed as the administrator of an intestate (no will) decedent's estate at a probate court where the decedent lived or owned property. Here's a basic timeline and specific steps for a typical estate administration when none of the interested parties object to the will or petition moving forward. Keep in mind if any interested party objects to the will or petition, then the process will be extended.


Estate Administration 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 the life insurance company, Social Security Agency, Department of Health Services (if the decedent received medical benefits), and others as needed.

Prepare and file a "petition for probate" or a "petition for letters of administration" by:

  • Providing the probate court 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 so that service of notice and process can be completed

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

  • Notice to creditors
  • Notice to local newspaper
  • Request an estate EIN number from the IRS
  • Open an estate bank account
  • Notice to the IRS of the appointment of a personal representative

6 to 12 months

  • 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

6 to 12 months

  • Notice to franchise tax board (if the heir is an out-of-state resident)

8 to 15 months

  • Tax clearance letters from IRS

7 to 15 months

  • Present the heirs and beneficiaries with a final accounting
  • File petition for final distribution and accounting

8 to 16 months

  • Hearing on petition for final distribution and accounting

8 to 16 months

  • Order approving final distribution and accounting

9 to 18 months

  • Distribution of assets to beneficiaries and heirs(Including deeds transferring real property)
  • Request acknowledgments and release of liability from all beneficiaries and heirs

9 to 18 months

  • Final discharge order

9 to 24 months

  • Final 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, such as attorney's fees, personal representative fees, and court costs. These fees typically come out of the estate itself. Because probate can be costly and time-consuming, 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 is there to help, a probate lawyer can ensure the process runs as smoothly as possible, even when you face the unexpected. Contact a local probate lawyer.

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