It’s not uncommon for the beneficiaries of a will to become impatient with estates' executors as the probate process drags on and on. However, the executor may not be moving slowly. She must complete several tasks before she can make the decedent’s bequests to his beneficiaries. If she jumps the gun and distributes bequests too soon, the court holds her personally responsible if she runs out of money to pay the decedent’s taxes and debts.
All probates open with submission of the will to the court. Generally, the executor named in the decedent's will takes care of this, and she applies for official appointment at the same time. Depending on your state, court appointment can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Therefore, if you’re trying to gauge when your inheritance might become available, you can reasonably expect that the probate process won’t even begin for about two weeks. Some states, such as New Jersey, have statutory delays built into the probate process for heirs and beneficiaries to contest the will. A will is not even accepted for probate in New Jersey until 10 days have passed from the date of death, allowing anyone who wants to object to the will to do so during this time. If your state’s code has such a provision, add at least an additional week, or about a month overall.
Inventory and Valuations
After an executor takes office, she has a period of time in which to prepare an inventory of the decedent’s assets for the court. This includes a list of all his property, as well as values. Values of significant assets, such as real estate, require appraisals, and a professional appraisal can take more than a month to complete. In Maine, an executor’s deadline for accomplishing all this is three months, but she can ask for an extension. Three months is a typical time frame for this step. Therefore, you can expect that probate of the will won’t reach this point until approximately four months have passed.
Simultaneously with preparing an inventory for the court, the executor will notify the decedent’s creditors that he has died and that his estate is in probate. Each state gives creditors a limited period of time in which to make claims to the executor for payment. Florida’s statutes give creditors only three months from the date of notification, but Maine allows nine months from the date of death. The executor then has a period of time to decide whether each creditor’s claim is valid, usually about a month. Depending on your state’s laws, the process of paying creditors can easily take six months, but it usually runs concurrently with the inventory process. Therefore, it might typically be about six months from the opening of probate before creditors’ claims are settled.
Taxes are the greatest impediment to quickly closing an estate and distributing bequests, but few estates owe them. At the time of publication, a decedent’s estate must be worth $5.12 million before the executor has to deal with paying federal estate taxes. The executor has nine months from the date of death to file the return. In states that also impose estate taxes, this deadline is usually the same. The executor must then wait some additional time for approval from the IRS and the state before she can make bequests and close the estate. When an estate owes taxes, the overall timeline for probate can extend up to one to two years, as the executor waits for IRS approval. Otherwise, you can reasonably expect to receive your bequest six to nine months from the date of the decedent’s death, allowing for a few unforeseeable and unavoidable delays in the overall process.