How long does probate take?

Depending on where you live and what assets are in the estate, most people can plan for probate to take up to one year

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Derek SilvaSenior Editor & Personal Finance ExpertDerek is a former senior editor and personal finance expert at Policygenius, where he specialized in financial data, taxes, estate planning, and investing. Previously, he was a staff writer at SmartAsset.

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Probate is a legal process that handles the management of someone’s estate after they die — passing on their money and property as well as paying outstanding taxes and debts. The probate process can take anywhere from about one month to three or more years, but most estates can likely expect a process lasting from six months to one year. However, the length of probate depends greatly on where you lived and owned property as well as the condition of the estate.

Larger, wealthier estates generally take longer to probate because even if everything goes smoothly, a lot of time will probably go toward setting up court dates, contacting creditors, coordinating with financial institutions, and passing on assets to the proper beneficiaries. To avoid probate or make probate easier for your heirs and loved ones, it’s best to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes your will and some other essential estate planning documents.

Key takeaways

  • Probate can take anywhere from about one month up to two years or more

  • Where the decedent lived affects how long probate takes because each state has its own probate laws

  • The composition of the estate — number and value of assets, debts, and taxes — affects how long the probate process will take

  • Having a strong will, using beneficiary designations, and creating a trust can make probate easier for your loved ones

4 Factors that affect the length of probate

Probate can be either very simple or very complicated depending on multiple factors. Below are four of the main factors affecting how long probate is for you:

  • State law where the decedent lived

  • The condition of the will

  • The value of the estate

  • The composition of the estate

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State law where the decedent lived

Each state sets its own laws to determine how a deceased person’s estate can be handled, so the exact probate process varies by state. Even simple requirements like waiting the required period to initiate probate can make the whole process take longer.

As an example, for summary probate, which simplifies the probate process for some small estates, Colorado makes you wait 10 days before you can begin probate and Virginia makes you wait 60 days. This is to allow the executor time to file for letters of testamentary or for the beneficiaries of the will to petition for probate to begin. But this simplified form of probate that may take only a few weeks to complete after it is initiated.

Estates that don’t qualify for this simplified process and estates that are more complicated — like those with many debts or disagreements over how assets should be distributed — will have to go through a formal probate process, which can take significantly longer. In addition to the added layers of complexity from larger estates — like needing to work with a creditor or hire a tax professional — formal probate proceedings require more paperwork and likely more time handling matters in a probate court.

The condition of the will

The probate process can look different depending on whether the decedent left a last will and testament. First of all, the decedent’s will needs to be proved in court (to ensure it’s a valid will). Proving a will must follow certain steps that may vary by state.

The person responsible for taking the will to the local probate court is a personal representative called the executor of the will. If there is no will, the deceased person’s surviving spouse or someone inheriting their assets can go to the court to begin probate. They may have to get consent from other family members or beneficiaries, which can take time. The court will name them the estate administrator to handle the probate estate. (Learn more about what happens if you die without a will.)

If there are issues proving the will, like if there are multiple wills or if someone disagrees with its terms and contests the will, the process can potentially drag on for years. It may also become expensive if you need to work with estate lawyers. The court may call upon witnesses who signed the will to confirm their identities and signatures, which may delay probate if they are dead or cannot be located. (You can include a self-proving affidavit with your will to avoid having your witnesses appear in court.)

After proving the will, the executor must carry out its terms, which may or may not be straightforward depending on what’s in the estate and how the will is written.

The value of the estate

Larger and more valuable estates generally take longer to settle. As mentioned above, small estates can usually go through a simplified process after the executor signs a small estate affidavit. Bigger estates must complete the formal probate process, which can require more paperwork and more dates in court. If the executor requires help from professionals, like a probate attorney or accountant, probate will also take longer.

The composition of the estate

The exact composition of the estate can also make a big difference in how long probate takes. Estates with many assets may require the executor to contact multiple financial institutions and coordinate with multiple will beneficiaries. Even if everything goes smoothly, the process can take a long time. Very wealthy estates may take two or more years to sort out. (The probate costs may be higher, too.)

Shorten the length of probate by assigning some assets beneficiary designations instead of using a will.

Additionally, the executor may have to deal with creditors. Any debts the decedent left behind, like a mortgage or student loans, will need to be sorted out by the executor. Again, even if everything goes smoothly, contacting lenders or financial institutions can take weeks or months.

Someone must also file the estate’s taxes. The decedent likely owed state or federal income taxes, regardless of their net worth. If the decedent was wealthy, the estate may have to deal with federal or state estate taxes. And while the estate itself doesn’t have to deal with inheritance taxes, it’s possible the decedent’s estate plan included a way to manage those taxes too.

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How to make probate faster

Planning ahead and creating a strong estate plan can make probate a simpler and cheaper process for your loved ones. Everyone’s estate plan will look slightly different, but at the very least you should create a strong will. Having a will can prevent debates or confusion about who should get your money and possession after you die.

You can also prevent some estate assets from ever being probated by using joint accounts or by making beneficiary designations for your bank accounts, retirement accounts, and investment accounts. When you die, these assets will simply pass to the other owner of the joint account or your beneficiary without the need for probate.

Learn what types of assets are subject to probate.

Another way to shorten probate is to create a living trust. A trust allows you to transfer ownership of trust assets directly to beneficiaries without the need for probate. Trusts are a bit more complicated because they require you to manage them, but you can create a will and trust together at an affordable price.