Estimating how long probate will take

5 min read

How to predict your probate time frame

  • Probate is a time-consuming process that’s supervised by the courts and can last anywhere from weeks to months to years.

  • The state your loved one lived in is one of the variables that can affect the speed of the process.

  • Each state has different probate laws that can affect the timeline dramatically.

  • Another issue is the size and complexity of your loved one’s estate. Generally, the bigger it is, the longer it takes.

  • The biggest danger to a quick probate is any disagreement over the will. Legal disputes between heirs can drag on for years.

One of the most arduous tasks that follows the passing of a loved one is probate. Not every estate will need to go through probate, but for those that do, it can be exhausting, emotionally taxing, and in some cases, very expensive.

Probate is a court-supervised process during which the will is authenticated, all assets and debts are located, the estate’s value is appraised, and its assets are transferred to heirs. And depending on how complicated the estate is, it can take anywhere from a couple of months to a few years.

Many variables play a role—including the state your loved one lived in and the size and complexity of the estate—so it is notoriously difficult to predict a timeframe for an estate going through probate. But answering a few questions can give you insight into what to expect.

When can you file for probate?

Each state has its own set of probate laws. When trying to figure out how long this process is going to take, the first thing you want to look into is how soon after your loved one’s death you are allowed to begin the process for probate.

For example, if the estate is relatively small, Colorado lets you file for probate 10 days after your loved one’s death. California will make you wait 40 days, and if your loved one died in Virginia, then you’ll need to wait 60 days before filing. 

The reason for the wait is so the executor has time to file the necessary paperwork and for any beneficiaries to come forward who might want to petition the will.

At the same time, all states have a maximum time period you can wait before filing for probate, and some even have a time limit in which probate should be completed.

For example, you must file probate within 30 days of your loved one’s passing in New Hampshire. And in California, the law states that probate must be completed within a year, though that can be extended to 18 months in some cases.

If your loved one passed away in a state like Virginia, you know the process is going to take more than a few months, because you can’t even start until two months after your loved one dies.

What is the size of the estate?

The size and complexity of the estate plays a major role in how long probate can take. If your loved one left behind a small estate with few assets, the probate process can be easily wrapped up in minimal time (sometimes in just a few weeks) with a small estate affidavit.

On the other hand, if your loved one owned multiple properties (perhaps in more than one state); has a lot of assets, but also a lot of debts; and there are issues among the beneficiaries as to who’s entitled to what, there will be a need for a formal probate process.

That can last months, if not years. Also, in these cases, additional professionals may need to be hired to deal with the taxes involved.

It is important to understand that the person who has passed away and their estate are two separate entities. Because of this, the estate is given a tax ID upon the death of the estate’s owner.

The estate will owe an estate tax and income tax. Working with an attorney who specializes in taxes, as well as handling creditors, will add to the paperwork and ultimately make the process even longer.

Large estates can take years to complete probate, especially if there’s no state law that places a time cap on when it should be completed.

What’s in the last will and testament?

If your loved one left behind a will that clearly states their wishes in regard to their assets, then that can help speed up the probate process—in fact, you might even be able to skip probate.

The process to prove the validity of the will can vary from state to state.

If anyone contests the will, it can add months, if not years, to the probate process.

If anyone contests the will—which is not uncommon, especially if the estate is large—it can add months, if not years, to the probate process.

Sadly, when someone passes away, people can become greedy and feel entitled to certain assets, making probate not only far more complicated than it needs to be, but dragging it out for a long time.

It’s only after the will is deemed valid that the executor or administrator can move forward to carry out its instructions. Or, if it is found to be invalid, then the executor or administrator will have to abide by the final rule of the probate court in terms of how to distribute assets to family members.

When trying to figure out how long probate is going to take, there’s no definitive answer, but looking at these three issues can help you plan for the next few weeks and months: the laws in your loved one’s state, the size and complexity of the estate, and the potential for disputes over the will.

The best thing you can do during this difficult time is take it one day at a time. While probate can stand in the way of the healing process for some, just remind yourself that no matter how long it lasts, it doesn’t last forever. And once it’s completed, it’s behind you, and you can start moving forward.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.