When a person dies, the executor of his estate uses his will to distribute his property and assets. Typically, wills go through the probate court, which means the will is verified and executed through formal procedures. Settling a will in probate, although standard, usually takes at least several months, with more complicated cases extending to years.
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Number of Heirs
In order for an executor of an estate to settle a will properly, she first must locate and notify every heir. Sometimes, this is easy, taking as little a single day, but if an heir has moved or changed their name, it can take several months to get contact information. Even after contact attempts are made, the executor must wait for each heir to respond. The more heirs need to be found, the longer it will likely take to settle the will.
Larger estates have more property and assets connected to them. This means that, logistically, the executor has more to sort through and verify. A higher number of property and assets also increases the likelihood that a higher number of people will be involved in the estate. For example, a large estate may have bank accounts, life insurance, stocks and other funds, which would mean contacting each bank, the insurance company and the deceased person's stockbroker or agent.
When trying to settle a will, you cannot assume that all parties involved will agree with the contents of the will. In some instances, people will file a formal contest to the will. In some cases, this is because they have evidence of the existence of a later version of a will that would nullify the version in current use. Other times, contests occur because heirs or others connected to the deceased person's family or estate do not agree with one or more specific provisions of the will, such as if they believe they are entitled to funds the deceased designated to someone else. Depending on how many contests are filed and how far the contest is pursued in court with additional appeals, contests can add months to a will's resolution. It is not just family members and friends who file contests -- creditors and service providers to whom the deceased owed funds also may file claims against the estate that complicate the execution of the will.
In general, most wills are settled somewhere around seven months, according to the 1800Probate website. Uncomplicated wills can be settled much sooner, although it's not unusual for it to take up to a year for everything to be finalized. If the estate is large, complicated or contested in any way, settling the will may take years. Because probate law varies by state, and because every will is different, assume you will not have access to anything in the will for at least 12 months following the death of your loved one.