Probate process refers to the timeframe required to settle the estate of a person who has died. Probate is a requirement in all 50 states and is used to validate decedents last Will and settle the estate according to probate law. The exception to this rule is if estate planning strategies were used to transfer inheritance property to a trust which is exempt from probate.
The probate process timeframe varies depending on estate value, type of inheritance property, family dynamics, and whether the decedent executed a Last Will and Testament. When decedents die without executing a legal Will it is referred to as intestate probate. The process to settle intestate estates requires additional time because extra steps must be taken to appoint an estate administrator and determine rightful heirs.
The first step of probate involves submitting the last Will through probate court. If no Will exists, heirs typically need to hire a probate lawyer to submit an original death certificate and obtain a case number.
An estate administrator is appointed within the Will or through court confirmation. This person is responsible for various duties which can range from making funeral arrangements to selling real estate or business assets owned by the decedent. Each probate case will be handled differently because many variables can exist. If heirs fight over inheritance property it can lead to contesting the Will, which in turn prolongs the probate process.
The probate executor is responsible for securing all property and personal belongings owned by the decedent. They must take inventory and obtain appraisals for valuable items such as real estate, jewelry, artwork, and antiques.
If no Will exists, the executor must locate rightful heirs which include direct lineage relatives such as mother, father, siblings, or children. Otherwise, inheritance property is distributed according to directives provided in the last Will.
The estate administrator must contact creditors and either pay off outstanding debts or enter into negotiation to reduce or eliminate debts. When decedents have a surviving spouse, the spouse can assume the debt or attempt to negotiate the balance owed. It is usually best to hire a probate attorney to enter into creditor negotiations when excessive debt is owed.
When decedents have life insurance, retirement accounts, financial portfolios, or bank accounts, the probate executor must obtain date-of-death values for each account. Forms must be submitted to the county tax assessor’s office. If the decedent is current on taxes, the Assessor’s office will sign the forms and return them to the estate administrator. If taxes are owed, payment must be made before financial assets can be distributed.
Once taxes are paid in full and forms are signed, the administrator provides the documents to the financial institution where funds are held. Financial assets will be distributed to designated beneficiaries within 5 to 10 business days.
Estate executors are required to submit a final tax return on behalf of the decedent within 9 months from the date of death. Payment in full must be provided or late fees and penalties will be assessed. Taxes are paid from the decedent’s estate and must be paid before inheritance property is distributed.
The final step of the probate process involves distribution of inheritance property. Beneficiaries are required to sign a statement regarding property received. These forms are presented to the court and the estate administrator is relieved from their duties.
On average, the probate process takes 6 to 9 months to complete. Estates valued below $25,000 often settle within a few months. Intestate estates typically extend for 9 to 12 months. Contesting a Will can prolong the process for several months.