Not sure about probate processing? Here’s how it works in six steps

We spend most of our lives working hard and trying our best to save money and accumulate assets.

We do this so that we can live a good life, and because we’d like to provide some financial security to our partner and/or children after we die. However, our beneficiaries don’t get immediate access to our estate when we die. Instead, they’ll need to wait for a process called probate to be completed.

Probate is the legal procedure to validate a person’s last will. If you don’t have a will, the probate court handles and directs the situation. This may sound simple in theory, but practice it’s usually a long, drawn-out procedure that can take months, and even years depending on several factors.

A probate timeline involves several steps. Factors that can influence the procedure include the size of the estate, tax, and debt, the number of beneficiaries, and any contested issues of a will. A typical probate process can take up to 24 months or more from the date of death.

To help you understand what to expect, here’s how the probate process works in six steps.

1) Prepare and file a petition

This can take anywhere between one to four months. It includes proving the validity of a will, choosing an estate executor, and identifying all heirs.

2) Bond

If you’re the executor of the will, you might be asked to put up a bond that is meant to protect the inheritance in case you mishandle things. Hand-written wills can take more time to prove their validity. Expect this process to take between three to five months.

3) Notice to creditors

Beneficiaries and creditors of probate are notified of probate. State laws will set a time limit on how long probate must remain open and how long creditors have to come forward with a claim. This could take another three to six months.

4) Estate inventory

Calculating the value of an estate is one of the longest processes in probate, taking anywhere between six months up to a year, and sometimes beyond that. If parts of it include real estate properties, an official appraisal might be needed.

5) Pay taxes

Once the inventory is complete, taxes must be paid. Taxes include all applicable taxes, state and/or federal, and estate administration costs. It’s another step that may take up to a year. 

6) Hearing on petition for final distribution

During this hearing, there might be those who contest the will. So, it may or may not be close to the last step of the final discharge order, and final distribution of estate funds.

There are several reasons that can lead to a lengthy probate. When there are several beneficiaries, or beneficiaries living in different states or out of the country, it can postpone the process. Whether large or small estates, most beneficiaries will have contact with a probate court.

Probate is a time-consuming process involving a lot of paperwork and attending court hearings. It’s not always required but in many cases, you will not be able to receive inheritance without it.

Photo by Melinda Gimpel