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how long does an executor have to distribute will

When most people think of executing a will, they might think only of delivering inherited assets to beneficiaries. However, there are actually several steps of the probate process that the executor must complete before transferring any assets. As a beneficiary, it’s natural to wonder how long it will take before the process ends and you receive any inheritance coming your way.

Unfortunately, every estate is different, and that means timelines can vary. A simple estate with just a few, easy-to-find assets may be all wrapped up in six to eight months. A more complicated affair may take three years or more to fully settle.

There are some deadlines written into state code for some parts of the probate process, and these might compel the estate’s executor to complete certain steps by a given date. We’ll review some of these rules in this guide. However, these deadlines are far from uniform, so it’s important to read up on how your state and even your county handle things.

Filing the Will for Probate

Submitting the deceased’s will to the proper probate court is the first step in any probate process. Doing this and receiving the court’s approval is what allows the executor to act as executor in the first place. So how long does the executor have to submit the will after the deceased passes away? As with just about every step in the process, the answer varies from state to state.

Some states, like Oregon and Florida for instance, have no stated time limit for an executor to submit the will. Other states such as Texas, have a window of four years after death to begin the probate process.

That being said, the executor’s fiduciary duty to the estate, and therefore the estate’s beneficiaries, prevent him or her from just sitting on the will without good reason. The estate will continue to accrue expenses like property taxes regardless of whether or not anyone has filed the will, so it’s almost always in the estate’s best interest to get the probate process started sooner rather than later. If you’re a beneficiary and the executor named in the will has no plans to file the will or start the probate process, you likely have an argument that she’s violating her fiduciary duty to the estate.

Inventory

how long does an executor have to distribute will

One of the first parts of the probate process is conducting an inventory of an estate’s assets. After an executor receives authority from the probate court, he or she is in charge of collecting all the assets in the estate and giving each a valuation. This is necessary to determine several things. One is if the estate will be subject to estate taxes. Another is if the estate will remain solvent – that is, whether the estate’s assets exceed its debts.

Some states have deadlines for an initial inventory written into state code. Both Maryland and Texas, for example, require executors to conduct an inventory within three months of the decedent’s passing. Other states leave it to the probate courts to judge on a case-by-case basis. If you’re the executor of a complex estate, be sure to find out whether there are any state or county laws regarding the timeline for conducting the inventory.

Paying Debts and Taxes

The amount of debt associated with an estate is arguably the variable that can have the biggest impact on how long the probate process takes. This is partially because creditors against the estate need time to become aware of the process and make any claims against the estate.

Some states have required windows of time to allow creditors to make claims. Illinois, for example, requires executors to allow six months. California requires a bit less, with four months. On the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts allows a full year to creditors to make claims.

The tax burden that your estate has is another factor that could prolong the probate. This is particularly true if you have to deal with estate taxes. If the estate has real estate in multiple states, you may have to go through separate probate processes, which may or may not delay the distribution of assets.

The Takeaway

how long does an executor have to distribute will

There are a great many variables that can affect the duration of the probate process. If the estate is small and has a reasonable amount of debt, six to eight months is a fair expectation. With a larger estate, it will likely be more than a year before everything settles. This is especially true if there’s a lot of debt or real estate in multiple states.

If you are a beneficiary and you’re wondering how long probate will take, your best bet is to talk with the executor. The executor can give you an idea of how complex the estate is and therefore how long the probate process will be. If you feel that the executor is taking too long, you might look into any regulations that the state or probate court is placing on the process. State laws requiring a long window of time for creditors to make claims could prolong the process. On the other hand, there may be laws that require the executor to act more quickly in settling the estate.

Tips for Planning your Estate

  • If you’re planning your estate and the idea of probate seems like a hassle, you may want to open up a living trust. Once you pass away, your successor trustee will be able to transfer the contents of your trust directly to your beneficiaries. The trustee won’t have to seek approval from the court.
  • Want to make sure you have a nice inheritance to leave your heirs? A financial advisor can be a big help in growing and protecting your wealth. With SmartAsset’s free financial advisor matching tool, you can match with up to three advisors who can help you create a plan you’re comfortable with. Just answer a few questions about your financial life, and the tool will do the rest.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/kali9, ©iStock.com/courtneyk, ©iStock.com/ebstock

Hunter Kuffel, CEPF® Hunter Kuffel is a personal finance writer with expertise in savings, retirement and investing. Hunter is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and currently lives in New York City.
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