When to Probate a Will in Tennessee

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

When to Probate a Will in Tennessee

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

Probate is the legal process through which a court oversees the administration and distribution of a decedent's estate. Probate is necessary for the executor—the person designated by the decedent as responsible for administering their will—to gather the decedent's assets, distribute those assets to any heirs or beneficiaries according to the will's instructions, and pay taxes and any remaining debts. The probate process also allows creditors or heirs to contest the will. Tennessee law does not clearly state when an executor should start probate, but it is generally best to start it as soon as possible.

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Submitting a Will for Probate

State law governs the administration of wills. Thus, it is important to understand the specific rules that apply in each state. Most states have time limits for how long the executor has to produce a will for probate and start the probate process. For example, Montana bars probate three years after the decedent's death, while Pennsylvania allows up to 21 years to apply for the administration of a decedent's estate.

Tennessee, however, has no statutory time limit for when an executor must submit the will for probate. There is no penalty for not probating a will. That means if the will is never submitted to probate, the assets remain in the decedent's name so long as the estate continues to pay the required taxes. However, it is virtually impossible to transfer the decedent's assets to the beneficiaries or heirs designated in the will without submitting the will for probate. In addition, creditors, heirs, or beneficiaries can contest the will, which may force the executor to begin the probate process.

Executor's Responsibilities

In addition to administering the decedent's will, the executor must notify any creditors that the decedent died so that they have time to submit claims for any money owed. The executor must also pay any taxes the decedent owed at the time of their death, including federal and state estate taxes and the last remaining individual income tax return.

Nonprobate Assets

Tennessee state law does not require all of the decedent's assets to go through the probate process. For example, any property held in joint tenancy automatically passes to the surviving coowner. Any assets held in trust also bypass the probate process and pass directly to the beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust. Retirement accounts, payable-on-death bank accounts, and life insurance proceeds are all exempted from the probate process because they already have designated beneficiaries. These types of assets pass directly to their new owners without oversight from the probate court. The only types of assets that are required to pass through probate are the decedent's individually owned property.

It is important to understand the probate process in Tennessee if you have any interest in the decedent's will—particularly as an executor, an heir, a creditor, or a beneficiary. The probate process typically takes between six to nine months depending on the complexity of the decedent's estate. Thus, the executor should initiate the probate process as soon as they can to ensure timely distribution of the decedent's estate.

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