The probate process breaks down into three general stages:
1) appointing an executor;
2) marshaling assets and determining debts; and
Below we review these stages, their estimated timelines, and some potential causes of delay. Understand that these are just estimates based on the assumption that no one is contesting any part of the process. If a contest occurs, then the parties litigate the dispute and all bets are off when it comes to time estimates. Remember—bringing one additional factor into the mix can cause significant delay.
*The information in this article applies to probate of a last will and testament but it generally applies to the administration of an intestate estate, that is, the estate of a person who did not leave a last will and testament.
Appointing an Executor (rough estimate: 30-90 days)
The first step in the probate process is appointing an executor. The executor will oversee the administration of the estate. The executor is like the CEO of a company; she’s in charge but has to act in the best interest of the company (or the estate).
The executor named in the will of the deceased has to bring forward the will for probate and the will must be authenticated or validated by the court. If we start the timeline on the day the executor first hires an attorney, then the timeline will look something like this:
- Two weeks for the executor to gather necessary documents and information;
- Two weeks for the attorney to draft the probate petition, have the executor sign it, and file the petition with the Surrogate’s Court.
We’re looking at about a month before the petition is even filed. Some executors have everything up front and are ready to go right away. This speeds up the process. If death certificates or other documents need to be ordered, this can slow the process. All heirs at law are asked to consent to probate in writing. If the heirs don’t do this promptly, or at all, this can extend the timeline by weeks.
Potential delay: If the executor does not know the location of an heir, this could cause delay because the executor must use “due diligence” in attempting to locate the heirs. The same issue arises where there are unknown heirs.
Potential delay: If an heir contests the legitimacy of the will, then the parties litigate the dispute until it is resolved either by settlement or judicial decree. Will contests can take years to resolve.
Assuming there is no will contest, the petition is submitted to the Court for review. If everything is acceptable to the Surrogate, then a decree will be issued appointing the executor. The time it takes for the Court to process the petition varies from county to county. Some of the less populated counties will issue a decree within two weeks of the filing date. The more populated counties, especially those within New York City, tend to be inundated with work and can take 6-8 weeks or longer.
If we add up our time estimates of four weeks for preparing and filing the petition plus eight weeks for the Court to process it, our timeline is up to about three months for getting the executor appointed.
In some circumstances, the Surrogate will consider expediting this process. If there is an emergency situation, the petitioner can ask the Surrogate to consider the application right away. However, there must be a truly urgent situation. The question to ask is, “if the executor is not appointed quickly, will the estate suffer a significant loss?”
Marshaling Assets and Determining Debts (length varies widely; at least 7 months)
Once the executor is appointed she must marshal, or collect, the decedent’s assets and determine what debts need to be paid. This length of this stage varies greatly depending on the type of assets and the difficulty in liquidating them. Debts are somewhat easier to determine but a delay can occur if the executor disputes a debt.
Identifying and locating assets is accomplished through the executor’s knowledge and investigation. Investigation can include speaking with the decedent’s accountant, financial planner, attorney, and friends and family. There are also various databases that can be searched. Assets such as bank accounts and personal property can often be collected immediately. Occasionally, investment accounts take longer to liquidate.
Selling real estate is often a lengthy process. A properly priced listing can result in an accepted offer in as little as a few weeks, but the seller and buyer then need to enter into a contract and complete the sale. The total time, from listing to closing, can easily take 90 days or more.
Potential delay: The time it takes to sell real estate is very difficult to estimate because no two transactions are alike. Various pitfalls are: a buyer failing to obtain a mortgage commitment, title defects, the need to make repairs, the need to evict an occupant, or a beneficiary objecting to the sale. Any of these issues can delay the process by months.
Potential delay: If a dispute arises over the ownership of property (does the decedent own it, or does someone else?), the parties would litigate the dispute until it is resolved by settlement or judicial decree. Litigation can take years to resolve.
Debts can be paid once the executor determines that the estate is solvent (enough money to pay all expenses and debts). However, an executor might not be aware of a debt until the creditor files a claim. And executors are personally liable to a creditor if: a) the creditor files a claim within seven months of the executor’s appointment; b) there are insufficient funds to pay the creditor; and c) the executor distributed estate funds that would have been available to be paid to the creditor. Therefore, it is wise to make no distributions or pay any debts until at least seven months passes, subject to exceptions.
Seven months is the shortest amount of time that this stage typically takes. Assuming there is no litigation in this stage, other delays can often be resolved in a matter of months. This puts the length of this stage, for many estates, at about a year.
The accounting stage consists of the executor (or administrator) advising the interested parties, usually the beneficiaries, as to what was collected, what was paid out, and what is left to distribute. The purpose of the account is to release the executor from liability. This is accomplished in two ways: informal accounting or judicial accounting.
Most estates are settled informally. The executor provides each interested party with a written account of her actions and proposed distribution. If acceptable to the party, then that person signs a Receipt & Release, indicating that the person received the proper distribution and releases the executor from liability. This process only takes as long as is required to put the account together and obtain the Receipts & Releases, often 30-60 days for simple estates.
In certain circumstances, the executor will settle her account judicially. This consists of asking the Surrogate to approve the account (by filing a petition) and, if acceptable, the account is approved and the executor is released from liability (by decree of the Court). Circumstances that necessitate a judicial accounting include situations where an interested party refuses to sign a Receipt & Release and where an interested party is under a legal disability (e.g. an infant). The process starts with the drafting and filing of a formal account, petition, citation, and supporting documents. After the Court reviews the filings, which can take several weeks to several months, the Court will issue a citation to be served upon the interested parties. This sets a court date (about 30 days after issuance) to give the interested parties an opportunity to object to the executor’s account. If no one voices objections, then the account will go through a final review by the Surrogate’s law department and, if everything is in proper order, a decree will be granted approving the account and releasing the executor from liability. This can take several more weeks or months depending on how quickly things move in the particular county in which your proceeding takes place. Uncontested judicial account proceedings in the counties of New York City can easily take six months to one year or longer.
It’s worth it to state again: any estimate of how long it takes to probate an estate is just a guess and subject to delays. When a dispute arises, all bets are off. As you can see from this article, the estimates vary widely. Our estimates from above:
- Appointing an estate representative: 30-90 days
- Marshaling assets and determining debts: 7 months – 1 year or more
- Accounting: 30 days – 1 year
The range we get is 9 months to 2+ years. The variation in length is appropriate because every estate involves different issues with different levels of complexity. And sometimes, it is not even the complex issues, but rather the simple issues, that take a long time to resolve. Many estates can be administered in the 12-15 month range—occasionally shorter and occasionally longer. Litigated cases can take years to administer. When faced with an estate that appears to be relatively straight forward, I encourage clients to expect the process to take at least a year and to be prepared for delays that could bring the timeline closer to two years.
What Can Be Done to Expedite the Probate Process?
Most aspects of the probate process cannot be expedited. For example: you can’t control the time the courts take to process petitions and you can’t force people to respond to requests in a timely matter. However, there are a few things within your control:
- Act quickly. It isn’t necessarily critical to start the process right away, especially considering the time needed to grieve after the loss of a loved one. However, if your goal is to minimize time, then the sooner you get started, the sooner you will finish.
- Don’t go it alone. Self-represented executors are bound to make mistakes. Some can cost the estate money, but most cost time. A small error in your petition, could move your application to the bottom of the clerk’s pile. This is especially true in the counties of New York City where the Courts are inundated with cases, often have long backlogs, and the clerks have a limited ability to assist the self-represented. Will hiring an attorney be costly? Yes. But not having an experienced probate attorney can be more costly. This mindset applies to most aspects such as hiring accountants, real estate brokers, and other professionals who can assist in the estate administration process.
- Stay organized. The administration process can include an overwhelming amount of information and documentation. Keep your records organized; retain receipts and emails; keep pristine account ledgers. This will save you time, and headache, in the long run.