When you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, the most mundane responsibilities can become difficult.
And if you’re tasked with helping handle the estate of your loved one, you can feel downright overwhelmed.
“Many members are concerned whether they are handling the process correctly,” says Jim Liddle, vice president, trust officer at First Community Trust. “The attorney will be a large help to ensure the executor or administrator is on the right path, but sometimes there can still be some questions.”
If you understand how the typical probate process works, you’ll be more prepared—and, hopefully, less stressed during this difficult time.
While each estate is unique, the process usually takes about 12 months from beginning to end, according to Liddle.
“This will vary depending on the contents of the estate, if a will exists and if there are any challenges to the will,” he says.
Here’s a typical timeline of the probate process, provided by FCT:
Step 1: Executor is appointed.
At the beginning of the estate process, the executor or administrator will be appointed by the court.
If there’s a will in place, the named executor will work with an attorney to be appointed by the court. If there’s no will, your state has a general one that will be used, and the court will appoint an administrator.
Step 2: Assets are inventoried.
It’s up to the executor or administrator to discover and collect all the assets owned by the deceased person into the estate and prepare a listing of the assets. This listing is called the probate inventory.
“A difficult part for survivors is identifying the assets that comprise the estate,” Liddle says. “For example, if the decedent has multiple financial institution relationships, discovering where the assets are located and working to garner all the assets can be overwhelming.”
The listing will show the court what the estate is comprised of. The executor or administrator also might work directly with companies to provide proof of death for life insurance, annuities and other qualified assets, such as Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k)s. These will transfer to the intended heirs by the beneficiary designation on the respective assets.
Step 3: Decedent’s wishes are carried out.
Once all the assets are compiled, the bills are paid and final tax returns are filed, the executor or administrator will ensure the intentions of the decedent are carried out.
For example: “At passing, all my final expenses are to be paid, my favorite charity gets $X and the remaining assets are divided equally and distributed to my children.”
There might be a partial distribution during the estate process. Generally, some assets might be held back to pay estate expenses, including executor fees, attorney fees, accounting fees and court costs.
Step 4: The estate is closed.
After the final tax return acquittance (a notice from the state that no further tax is owed by the estate) is received by the estate, the executor and attorney will prove to the court that all expenses have been paid and the intended beneficiaries have or will receive their assets. The judge will review the information and approve closing the estate.