You may not always know it if you have an inheritance coming. And in some cases, you may not even know the individual has passed on. This is particularly common with intestacy, if a relatively distant family member dies and you are the next closest living relative. It falls to the estate’s executor or administrator to notify all heirs of their inheritance and any steps they must take to claim those assets. Every state has very different rules on this subject. While it’s common to notify beneficiaries within 45 to 90 days from the start of probate, this is not an area with significant overlap among states. Here’s what you need to know.
A financial advisor can help you create an estate plan to protect the interests of your heirs.
Estate Laws Are Highly State-Specific
Estate and property law are two of the most state-specific fields in all of law, arguably even more so than criminal statutes. Every state has its own rules for how it handles inheritances and how it manages property rights, and often those rules conflict with the laws of other states.
You should note that the process for notifying heirs under a will can differ in any given state. So make sure to consult a lawyer before making any specific plans regarding your own assets.
How Long After Death Until Probate Is Filed?
When someone dies, the total amount of their property, cash, debts and all other assets and liabilities collectively are known as their “estate.” The process of distributing this estate is known as probate, and this process is overseen by a probate court.
If the deceased had a will, then their estate is handled by an executor who was ideally named in the text of the will. If the deceased died intestate, meaning without a will, then their estate is handled by an administrator appointed by the court. The main difference between these positions is their title. In both cases, the individual pays the estate’s debts and distributes its assets to named and/or legal heirs until nothing remains in the deceased’s name.
There is little, if any, consistency in when the probate process must start. Some states require that the executor, heirs and interested parties must file for probate within 30 days of death. Others give you as long as three years.
In all cases, however, heirs cannot be formally notified of their inheritance until the probate process starts and the executor or administrator begins their work.
How Long After Probate Are Heirs Notified?
Once probate has begun, the executor or administrator must notify all heirs and potential heirs of their inheritance.
For estates with a will, the most common rule is that the executor must notify all known and named beneficiaries within 90 days of the start of probate. That said, this is a very loose standard. States range widely, with some requiring notice within 15 business days of the first hearing date and others giving the executor up to a calendar year or more to notify heirs.
To the extent that an executor must notify beneficiaries, these rules also apply only to known beneficiaries. As the executor manages the estate they may discover new or unresolved inheritance issues, and heirs will then be notified as they are identified.
For estates without a will, the rules are somewhat different. First, the administrator must identify potential beneficiaries based on state law and existing family records. Often, the only source for this information is family members who have come forward to identify themselves. Then, typically, the administrator must make a public notice of the deceased so that any unknown heirs have an opportunity to come forward. This is generally handled by running an advertisement in a local newspaper. This notice must run for a minimum amount of time, with that period varying from state to state.
Once the administrator has satisfied the court that they have made a diligent search for all potential heirs, they must notify the heirs of their inheritance. Again, typically they have between 90 days and a year to do this.
After the executor or administrator has notified the estate’s heirs, a waiting period may apply to any distributions. These are particularly common for real estate and other high-value assets. When state law requires a waiting period it typically will last for at least six months between when the heirs are notified and when they can receive the assets. This is to allow time for anyone to contest the inheritance as appropriate.
Finally, after notice and any applicable waiting periods have elapsed, the executor or administrator may make distributions.
There is no standard to when the beneficiaries and heirs to an estate must be notified of their inheritance. States require notice to begin anywhere from 15 days to a full year after the process of probate has begun, terms which vary widely based on when and how heirs are identified.
Estate Planning Tips
- How long it takes to get notice under a will is very related to the time it takes to conduct probate. In a basic will this can be a straightforward process, but not always.
- A financial advisor can help you build a comprehensive retirement plan. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
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