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How quickly do I need to settle an estate?

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The Executor Adviser from Executor.org

The Executor Adviser is an advice column created by Executor.org for Legacy. Executor.org's experts aim to help readers with questions about executorship and provide comprehensive, free online resources to guide executors through this complex process.

It seems that most things in life have set timelines and we spend our days working off a schedule – a meeting at 10 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., home to watch the hockey game at 7:30. As much as we might not like the alarm going off at 6 a.m., most of us gravitate to setting a schedule of some sort. When it comes to serving in the executor role, however, you’ll likely find it difficult to set a reliable timeline because settling an estate can be affected by things far beyond your control.  

So how quickly do you need to settle an estate when you are serving as an executor? The answer is... it depends. While typically the process can take about a year, there are a few factors to consider:

Probate Court. When a will is filed with the probate court, that begins the process called probate. The probate court oversees your actions as you complete every step of closing the decedent’s estate. There are many things the probate court does, including making sure assets are properly distributed to beneficiaries.  

The reason the probate court is one of the factors is because the court will work at its own pace, which may be slower than you’d prefer. For example, as executor you’ll need to obtain letters of testamentary from the court before you can do anything with estate assets like bank accounts, cars, property, stocks, etc. So no matter how quickly you may want to move forward, you have to wait for the court’s go-ahead. Conversely, the probate court may set deadlines for you to complete certain elements of your job, such as distributing the estate assets after an accounting of those assets has been done.

Size of the Estate. It is probably stating the obvious to say that larger estates typically take more time to settle than smaller estates. Especially as asset types become more complex, the time you need to spend settling the estate can increase dramatically. If the deceased left a typical estate with assets such as a bank account, house, car, and personal possessions, those can be relatively simple to distribute. But if they also had ownership interests in a small business, extensive property holdings, or complex investments, it may take longer to sort all of these out so beneficiaries receive their distributions as outlined in the will.

Another consideration is if the person died without a will. When a person dies without a will, it sometimes takes longer because the probate court has to appoint an estate administrator and more closely oversee the estate administration.

Organization of the Estate. Some people are great about keeping records in their lifetime and these records can really help speed up the work an executor has to do. Others leave their executor with a mess of paperwork or even no records at all of the estate’s assets. If you are the executor of an organized estate, be thankful that the decedent left easy work for you so that you can move quickly through the inventory and distribution of assets. If you are the executor of an estate where records are harder to identify, having patience will be useful because it may take several months to discover all estate assets and liabilities.

Beneficiaries and surviving family members. Loved ones and those set to inherit can slow progress down for several reasons. Some may be deep in grief and unable to provide needed paperwork and information. Others may stall progress with disputes about the will or general family friction. And then there’s the cases where beneficiaries cannot be located. Keeping beneficiaries informed about the process, remaining as objective as possible, and understanding that there will likely be roadblocks can be useful when it comes to both dealing with and avoiding beneficiary-related issues.

When we started Executor.org we learned one of the first questions new executors ask is, “How long is it going to take to settle this estate?” While we offer executors a personalized, step-by-step plan that helps ensure they don’t overlook any part of the job, we know the road to settling an estate might not be a straight one traveled on cruise control. Patience, flexibility, and the understanding that delays are normal will be valuable to you as you navigate this challenging, complex process.

Have a question about executorship? Get an answer by sending an email to [email protected].


About the Author: Patrick O'Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a free, comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The free tools include a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.