How long does probate take?

Probate is the process of transferring the ownership of assets, paying the debts, and finalizing the legal affairs of a deceased individual. Probate can take varying amounts of time depending on the complexity of the deceased’s assets. Although rare, some probate cases can continue indefinitely.

 No one can tell you exactly how long your case will take, but knowing the steps in the probate process and the general time frame for each can help you make an informed estimate.

Average Time for Probate Process

1) Petition the court to be named as legal representative: 1-3 Months.

In most instances, the deceased individual created a will and named an executor. The named executor will have to petition the court to be granted authority to act for the estate.

 Complications that could increase the length of time

  • There is no Will: If the deceased died without a will, the individual seeking to be legal representative simply needs to petition the court to become the administrator of the estate. In most instances, the process is essentially the same as when there is a will.
  • There is only a photocopy of the will: Possessing only a photocopy of the will is a remarkably common situation. In this instance, you inform the court that you could not find an original and ask the court to accept the photocopy. This additional step may add some time to the proceedings, but probably just a few weeks.
  • There is family controversy over the will:  During the process of proving the will, any heirs (or interested parties) must affirm the validity of the will. A challenge to the will creates serious delays and requires costly legal actions.

2) Notify heirs and debtors: 1-3 Months.  

After the court appoints you as legal representative of the estate,  you are obligated to find the heirs (listed in the will) and debtors and notify them of their status. In most cases, modern technology has made notifying heirs and debtors relatively easy. A simple credit report of the deceased will list almost all debtors, and the court will ask you to advertise the estate in the local paper.

Locating heirs may be more complicated, but some time spent on Google will likely help you find what you need.

3) Change legal ownership of assets to estate: 1-6 Months.  

Once you are the legal representative (either executor or administrator) of the estate, you must change ownership of all the assets the deceased had to the estate.

Unfortunately, modern technology has actually made identifying assets more difficult. In previous decades, an executor could simply gather the mail to see what the deceased owned (bank accounts, investments etc. …). Now many people get their statements online, which can create complications since you may not have the username/passwords to access the information or even know what accounts they have.

A little digging into their credit report, tax returns (interest, dividends, and stock sales will be listed and show where assets are held), and checking email for account statements will begin to point you in the right direction. If you can’t find password information for a particular account that you know exists, contacting the institution and providing the official letters from the court will help you get into the accounts.

4) Pay Estate Expenses: 1-9 Months.  

Depending on the complexity of the estate, paying estate expenses can be quick or lengthy. Once you have a reasonable idea of the likely expenses (funeral, taxes, debt), you should begin to pay out expenses. Some, like the funeral expenses, may have already been paid, in which case you can reimburse the family member who paid it.

Keep in mind that the court will want to see proof of certain expenses (namely, the funeral), so maintaining accurate records is critical. Also remember that taxes are the most important expenses to pay. If there are unpaid tax (federal and state), the executor or administrator may be held personally responsible for them.

5) Notify the court of all actions and close the estate: 3-24 Months.

Depending on the complexity of the estate, you will be able to complete all notifications within a year. However, most courts allow you a two year period before you are required to provide either a final or status report.

Suggested further readings

LegalZoom: How long does it take to probate a will?

TheBalance: How long does probate take?