A will isn't read dramatically to the family immediately following a death, in most cases. Instead, the executor or a family member typically files the will with the probate court, and the executor or an estate attorney sends copies to everyone who has an interest in the will. This typically happens within a couple of months after a death, although finalizing the estate can take several months or longer.
Turning Over the Will
To start the process of executing the will, families must give a copy to the local probate court. This is usually the court in the deceased's home county. Some states don't have a time limit regarding probating the will; families can wait years before sharing the will, or they can turn it into the probate court within days of the person's death.
Some states have statutes of limitations on wills, which means wills are valid for a certain period of time after the person dies. Texas, for example, gives families four years to submit wills to probate court, and Alabama allows families five years. Whoever holds the will doesn't have to disclose the will's contents to other family members or beneficiaries during that time.
Notifying Interested Parties
After the probate court receives the will, the executor or estate attorney mails notification of the will to anyone mentioned in the will as well as all the next of kin, regardless of whether they are beneficiaries in the will. Required time frames vary, but executors must mail the notifications within a reasonable amount of time. For example, in New Jersey, executors should send the notices within 60 days of supplying the will to the probate court.
Contesting the Will
Because the will isn't actually read to the family members and is instead provided by mail, any person with an interest in the estate has time to read and contest the will before any assets are distributed to the beneficiaries. This time usually begins when the interested parties receive a copy of the will. In Washington, for example, people wanting to contest the will have four months after they receive a copy or other notice that the will is probated.
After someone files a will contest, the probate process tends to take longer as lawyers work with the court to find a resolution.
Finishing the Process
If the will and estate are simple, it could take just a few months to complete the requirements and distribute inheritances to the beneficiaries. Alabama's Fortenberry Legal law firm estimates a simple will should take between seven and nine months, in part because of the state's requirement to give creditors six months to notify the court of a debt owed by the deceased. If the estate is large or if someone contests the will, the process might take more than a year. The executor distributes the assets to the beneficiaries at the end of the process after all creditors are paid and will contests are decided.
- Texas Probate Web Site: Frequently Asked Questions About Steps to Take When Someone Dies
- Franklin County, Ohio: How Long Does It Take to Probate an Estate?
- Elder Law Answers: Who Gets Copies of the Will After a Person Dies?
- NJ.com: Will Beneficiary Entitled to Notice
- Elder Law Answers: How to Contest a Will
- mitifo/iStock/Getty Images