Most people delay making an estate plan until it is too late. Many of those who do make a plan limit it to a simple will. In some cases, even those wills use vague or confusing language that can make them practically useless during probate. While it is certainly possible to avoid probate with careful planning, most estates will go through this legal process before the heirs can receive their inheritance.
Probate includes locating and authenticating your heirs, valuating your assets and paying any lingering debt. Each of these steps can take weeks or months, even if no wrinkles occur. When those glitches do happen, your heirs may find themselves waiting indefinitely while the court resolves the issues. If one of your goals is a speedy probate for your heirs, you may find it helpful to understand some of the common causes of probate delays.
Whether you die with a will in place or intestate, meaning without a will, the steps of probate will be relatively similar. Your will may include the designation of a personal representative who will see your estate through probate. If not, the court will appoint someone to this duty. Here may be the start of the delays.
Choosing the wrong person as the executor of your estate can result in endless conflict. An executor who is distracted by his or her personal affairs, who is a poor manager of time or money, or who is not altogether honest can cause your heirs to question and challenge every decision the executor makes. Additionally, most of the other steps of probate depend on the efforts of your executor. A disorganized or ambivalent executor can cause probate to drag on too long.
Other common reasons for delay
You may want your probate to go as smoothly as possible so your family can go on with their lives. Unfortunately, if your estate contains any of these factors, your heirs can expect an indefinite wait:
- You have more than two or three heirs, requiring the executor to locate and notify each one.
- Your heirs live a great distance from your estate, requiring extra time for reaching agreements and signing documents.
- Your heirs do not like each other, which often results in endless quibbling that can tie the hands of your executor.
- Your estate will owe federal estate taxes, which can add six months or more to a normal probate time.
- Your estate contains unusual or hard-to-value assets, such as patents, rare collectibles or a small business.
In addition to careful planning of your estate, a smooth and speedy probate may occur if your executor obtains the assistance of a skilled attorney. An attorney with experience handling complex estates will know the surest ways to ease any logjams in the process and keep things moving forward for the good of your heirs.