Once you have been part of settling an estate, whether as the executor or the heir, the experience will stay with you. You will no longer be surprised when things that seem to need only weeks to complete take months. A recent article from executor.com, “How Quickly Do I Need to Settle an Estate?” explains it all.
The answer to how long it takes to settle an estate when you are serving as an executor is, it depends. This answer is probably unsatisfying, but typically, the process can take about a year, and there are several factors to take into consideration.
Once a will is filed with the court, it starts the process called probate. The probate court oversees the executor’s actions as he or she completes every step of closing the decedent’s estate. The probate court does many things, including making sure that the assets are properly distributed to beneficiaries. Of course, you have no control over the pace of the court. This includes things such as when your file is reviewed, when hearings take place and so on. That is all up to the judge and his or her staff. Some states now have informal proceedings that may reduce the time of administration and reduce court supervision, but the estate must be one that is suited for such an informal probate. Even in the informal probate proceedings, the time to administer the estate is still dictated by the efficiencies of that particular probate court.
As executor, you will need to obtain from the probate court letters of testamentary, these state that you are the executor and have the power to act in a fiduciary manner on behalf of the estate. This has to be done before you can do anything with estate assets such as bank accounts, automobiles, property, and investment accounts. You must wait for the court’s approval to proceed. On the other hand, the probate court may set deadlines for the executor to accomplish specific tasks, like the distribution of the estate assets after completing the accounting of those assets.
Larger estates obviously take more time to settle than smaller ones. As the asset types become more complex, the time required to spend settling the estate can increase significantly. For example, if the deceased had ownership interests in a small business, extensive property holdings, or complex investments, it may take longer to organize these so the beneficiaries receive their distributions as outlined in the will.
Another factor affecting the time to settle an estate has to do with whether or not the person died without a will. If that happens, it can take longer because the probate court has to appoint an estate administrator and monitor the estate more closely.
Some people are great about keeping records in their lifetime. This can really help to expedite the work of an executor.
Beneficiaries and surviving family members who are set to inherit can cause delay in several ways. Some may be grieving and unable to provide required paperwork and information. Others may dispute the will, and some beneficiaries may be hard to locate. Keeping beneficiaries updated about the process and understanding that there will likely be obstacles can be useful when it comes to both dealing with and avoiding beneficiary-related issues.
Family Estate Law Planning Group’s associate attorney Frank J. Chiara IV knows the frustration of executors well:
The process of being an executor can be a very long, drawn out, and frustrating process. Dealing with the court system is not always the easiest of tasks. One small typo may derail hours of preparation and travel time, not to mention time spent waiting inside the court room itself. Determining someone’s assets can also be a very trying process, especially if you were unaware of the financial situation of the deceased or they did not leave behind statements or other records. Financial institutions can sometimes be even more difficult than the courts. Depending on the institution, it may take weeks to even get the authority to access account information. Once given the authority, it will then take time to get claim forms sent for the beneficiaries to complete and then sent back to the institutions. If there were no beneficiaries on these accounts, the executor will then have to get the funds distributed to the estate, in order to then distribute them according to the will. On top of everything, this is a very difficult time for those that are tasked with doing the work.
The best advice for someone who is named executor of an estate is exercise patience. The ability to diplomatically communicate with heirs when things don’t go as fast as they may wish and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, since surprises inevitably arises, is critical. If you are not an executor yet, then encourage your loved ones to get their estate in order.
At Family Estate Planning Law Group, whenever possible, we try to avoid and minimize probate and prepare executors through our family care meetings and educational events. The best way to make sure your family is taken care of after you die is to be organized now, continually align (and re-align over time) your assets consistent with your estate plan to avoid probate, and to work with a firm, like ours, that has an ongoing client care program. For more information on this and other estate planning topics, explore our website and contact us to schedule your consultation today!
Reference: executor.com (November 1, 2017) “How Quickly Do I Need to Settle an Estate?”