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Probate Timeline: What to Expect

The probate process involves officially recognizing a will, appointing a personal representative (executor), and distributing the estate’s assets to beneficiaries. It also includes settling the decedent’s debts and taxes. Probate laws vary by state, influencing whether probate is necessary, the requirements for fiduciary bonding, and the necessary reports. Since every will is unique, each probate experience is different.

Generally, probate moves quickly for estates with minimal assets and debts, but larger estates may take nine months to several years, particularly if family conflicts arise. An estate planning attorney or probate lawyer can provide valuable guidance during these complex or contentious situations. During a period of grief, understanding the probate timeline can help manage expectations and deadlines.

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

Filing a probate petition requires a valid will and the decedent’s death certificate, typically provided by the funeral home. The personal representative or executor sends official probate notices to beneficiaries or interested parties, adhering to state-specific notification processes. When beneficiaries agree, they can expedite the process by signing the “waiver of process consent to probate,” indicating no issues with the will and forfeiting their right to challenge it or the executor.

Notices of probate are generally sent within the first two months after the decedent’s death. Some states require the executor to publish a notice of death in a newspaper. The executor provides the decedent’s Social Security number to the funeral home to obtain the legal death certificate and may need multiple copies for larger estates. Reporting the death to the Social Security Administration and, if applicable, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is also required.

Provide Notice to Creditors (3-6 months)

Creditors must be informed of the decedent’s death and will. The personal representative notifies creditors through formal notices, following court rules. Discovering the deceased’s outstanding debts involves gathering remaining bills or requesting a copy of the decedent’s credit report.

Payment of Debts and Fees (6-12 months)

The executor must pay all debts, including professional and personal ones, using estate funds. The estate is also responsible for paying the decedent’s state and federal income taxes before probate can conclude. Additionally, probate itself incurs costs, which the estate covers. The fee structure can increase with the length of probate, so the executor benefits from efficient handling.

Asset Inventory (6-12 months)

Creating an inventory of the estate’s assets is essential for the official estate record. This task can be time-consuming, especially if records are disorganized. The inventory typically includes:

– Bank accounts (savings and checking)
– Property and real estate
– Stocks and bonds
– Retirement accounts
– Life insurance and annuities
– Valuable luxury items (jewelry, watches, art, collectibles)
– Intellectual property (patents, trademarks, copyrights, software databases, design rights)
– Online business ventures with income or value

Jointly owned assets, IRAs with designated beneficiaries, and accounts with pay-on-death designations usually bypass probate.

Asset Distribution (9-18 months)

Before distributing assets, the executor must ensure all debts are paid. Once creditors are settled and remaining assets are accounted for, state probate laws may require a probate hearing before asset distribution. This hearing helps prevent disputes from disgruntled beneficiaries.

The Estate Closing (9-24 months)

Probate concludes when all creditors are paid, taxes filed, and assets distributed or sold. After the executor completes their duties, a probate court judge issues a final order discharging the personal representative, officially closing the estate.

While all wills go through probate, it’s not the only option. Larger estates might benefit from using trusts to protect beneficiaries’ futures, as trusts can avoid the lengthy, complex, and public probate process.

Our estate attorneys can customize a plan for your family’s needs, advising on trusts and other mechanisms to simplify or expedite probate. Each will and state law is different. For personalized advice or to discuss your legal matters, contact us at (321) 729-0087.

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