How Long Does It Take for Court to Finalize an Inheritance?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

How Long Does It Take for Court to Finalize an Inheritance?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

The length of time needed to settle a deceased loved one's estate in court varies widely and depends on factors such as the type and value of assets inside the estate, individual state laws, and whether there are creditors' claims to satisfy debts or challenges to the will or estate administration. Relatively simple estates that avoid the probate court process typically see a distribution of assets to heirs and beneficiaries in a matter of weeks. When an estate goes through probate, it can take months—or even years—to finalize administration.

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Estate Administration Without Probate

Certain assets are exempt from probate administration and are quickly transferable when the owner passes away. In most cases, heirs or beneficiaries simply provide certified copies of their deceased loved one's death certificate and complete additional provider-specific forms to obtain these assets, which include:

  • Assets the deceased person and heir(s) owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship
  • Checking and savings accounts with pay on death (POD) beneficiary designations
  • Stocks, bonds, and mutual funds with transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary designations
  • Life insurance and annuities with one or more named beneficiaries
  • Individual retirement accounts (IRAs), Roth IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and other retirement accounts with one or more named beneficiaries
  • Real estate with a life estate designation
  • Real estate for which the deceased person recorded a TOD deed, beneficiary deed, or similar deed authorized by state law
  • Assets owned inside a revocable or irrevocable trust

The Probate Process

State laws determine whether remaining estate assets go through probate court. If probate is necessary, the court appoints someone as a personal representative, executor, or administrator. That person is responsible for safeguarding and inventorying estate assets, notifying creditors and other interested parties, representing the estate in court hearings and filings, paying valid debts and the expenses of estate administration, handling tax matters, and ultimately distributing remaining assets to the people and organizations named in the deceased person's will. If your deceased loved one passed away without a will, your state's laws determine who has the right to inherit remaining assets and in what percentages.

Your state's probate laws specify the time period during which creditors and others with claims against the estate can demand payment. In many states, this is a four-month window. After this statutory time period and after the personal representative has met all other obligations, he or she can distribute inheritances to heirs and beneficiaries.

Factors That Can Delay Distribution

Even when a relatively straightforward estate is probated, it can take months until heirs receive their inheritances. When someone contests the will or the estate administration, or when the estate includes real estate or other complex assets, heirs can expect a longer time frame.

Some contributing factors that delay administration and timely distribution include:

  • Creditors' claims that the personal representative contests or disagrees with
  • Omitted heirs and others contest or challenge planned estate distribution
  • Real estate owned in the deceased person's name alone
  • State and federal income and estate tax matters

If you expect to receive an inheritance from a deceased loved one's estate, it is frustrating to wait and even more frustrating to not have a fixed time period when you can expect to receive funds or other assets. However, probate laws protect creditors and beneficiaries alike. That means you can have peace of mind knowing that when you do receive your inheritance, you will not face later claims against it.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.

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