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Probate Process: A General Timeline

Posted by Nina Whitehurst | Jun 21, 2024 | 0 Comments

Probate is the legal process of formally recognizing a will after a person dies, naming or validating an executor to administer the estate, and distributing assets to intended beneficiaries. It also requires paying the decedent's outstanding debts and federal and state taxes.

Each state has different laws determining whether probate is necessary. Sometimes it is possible to expedite the process. Each probate experience is unique, as no two wills are the same.

In general, the timeline of the probate procedure moves quickly if the estate has minimal assets and little debt. Larger estates can expect a process lasting anywhere from nine months to a few years. Keep in mind that the process may be lengthier if problematic family dynamics are at play.

Your estate planning attorney or probate lawyer can help guide your efforts in these more complex or contentious circumstances. During a time of grief, you may find that having a general probate timeline is of value as well. This can help manage your expectations and the various deadlines as you move through the process. Continue reading for an outline of how the process may unfold.

Prepare and File the Probate Petition (1-4 months)

Filing a probate petition requires a valid will and the decedent's death certificate. Usually, the funeral home provides the death certificate. This document outlines the deceased person's date of death, how the decedent died, and other key information.

The executor, or personal representative, sends an official notice of probate to beneficiaries or interested parties. Each state has specific requirements regarding the notification process.

If all beneficiaries agree, each party may sign a variety of waivers and consents to speed the process. One such consent advises the court there are no issues with the will. It also demonstrates that the beneficiaries forfeit the right to challenge the will or its executor.

Usually, an executor sends a notice of probate within the first two months of the decedent's passing. Some states require a notice of death published by the executor in the newspaper. The executor provides the funeral home with the decedent's Social Security number. The funeral home then creates a legal death certificate.

An executor may prefer to purchase several death certificates for larger estates. The executor should also report the person's death to the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration will then notify Medicare.

Provide Notice to Creditors (3-6 months)

Like all beneficiaries, all creditors must be aware that a probate case has been opened. The executor of the estate notifies known creditors. This is done by a formal notice to creditors. 

Following court rules for notifying creditors is paramount.

In some cases, it can be a challenge to find details regarding the deceased's outstanding debts. The executor may start by gathering any remaining bills or requesting a copy of the decedent's credit report.

Payment of Debts and Fees (6-12 months)

As explained above, the decedent's creditors receive notification of the individual's death with a formal notice of death and notice to creditors. The executor must pay all professional and personal debts from the estate with estate funds. The estate is also responsible for filing the decedent's state and federal income tax returns before the probate process can conclude.

Additionally, the process of probate itself costs the estate money. The executor is responsible for ensuring that the estate pays all fees and administration costs relating to probate. The fee structure can increase based on the length of time a will is in probate. So, the executor benefits by moving quickly and carefully.

Asset Inventory (6-12 months)

An inventory of the estate's probate assets is a crucial part of the will since it becomes part of the official estate record. The task can be time-consuming, particularly if the estate's records are in disarray. Most asset inventory will include:

  • Bank accounts, including savings and checking accounts
  • Property and real estate
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Retirement accounts
  • Life insurance and annuities
  • Luxury items of significant value, like jewelry, watches, art, and other collectibles
  • Intellectual property, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, software databases, and design rights
  • Online business ventures that produce income or have stand-alone value

Jointly owned real estate, property, vehicles, and financial accounts may transfer directly to the surviving owner or surviving spouse. (However, keep in mind that state laws vary.) Probate is also not required for IRAs with a beneficiary or other accounts with a pay-on-death designation.

Asset Distribution (9-18 months)

Before asset distribution, the estate's executor must pay all creditors who submit formal claims. When all approved creditor claims are paid and the remaining assets are accounted for, some state probate law dictates the distribution of assets occurs only after the probate hearing. Concluding the probate hearing first prevents a disgruntled beneficiary from challenging the will's validity.

The Estate Closing (9-24 months)

Probate can conclude when all approved creditor claims are paid, taxes are filed, and assets are sold or distributed. After finalizing the executor's duties, the probate court judge then issues the final order of discharge of the executor. This court action officially closes the estate.

All wills go through probate proceedings; however, it is not the only available option. Larger estate owners may prefer to protect the futures of their loved ones using trusts. Avoiding probate can prove advantages. This is because the process can be lengthy, complex, expensive, and is always a matter of public record.

Help With Estate Administration

Your estate planning attorney can customize an estate plan and related legal documents for your family situation. He or she can advise you on trusts and other legal mechanisms to ease the estate administration process. You may also consult with an attorney regarding whether your estate would be a candidate for an expedited process. Please note that the information outlined above serves as a general timeline for the probate process. All wills and state laws are different.

About the Author

Nina Whitehurst

Attorney at Law Nina has been practicing law for over 30 years in the areas of estate planning, real estate and business law She is currently licensed in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Tennessee. Her Martindale-Hubbell attorney rating is the highest achievable: 5 stars in peer...


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