You may file a will with the probate court at any time after the testator's death and before the deadline set by state law. This deadline varies by state. For instance, North Dakota and New Mexico's deadline is three years after the testator's death; Texas allows four years, while Hawaii allows five. The time limit varies between three and six years.
The number of years you have to file a will after a death is specified in each state's probate code. Many states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (see Resources), but if your state has not, you can usually find this information by searching online for the name of your state and the phrase "probate code." The time limit for filing a will usually appears in the section of the probate code dedicated to probate, or probate and administration of wills. Alternatively, contact your local probate court to find out this information.
The filing deadline in each state serves several purposes. First, it helps guard against the will being altered or forged, as the extra time may give someone the opportunity to do so. Second, the filing deadline helps ensure that the deceased's assets do not deteriorate or lose too much value by sitting around without anyone managing them for many years after death. Finally, the deadline helps ensure that witnesses to the will's signing and any beneficiaries will still be alive and able to testify in court or receive their shares of the estate.
Most state probate codes include penalties for persons who have a deceased person's will but refuse to file it with the court or to give it to someone who will file it. These penalties range from a fine in most states, to jail time in Texas.