Most states do not have a deadline for estate executors to complete probate and distribute assets from a will. The opposite is usually true: the executor cannot distribute assets too soon. If he does, he risks not having enough money in the estate to pay creditors, taxes and other expenses. All probates involve four basic stages, however, and each has general timelines, usually set by state law.
Inventory of Assets
Shortly after opening probate by filing a copy of the will with the court, the executor takes office and receives court authorization to act on behalf of the estate. She must then provide the court with a complete listing of everything the deceased owned. In some cases, she must also set values for the assets. If she must have any of the them appraised to establish the value, this can take some time. Texas gives an executor three months from the time she takes office to accomplish this.
Notice to Creditors
The executor must also notify all the deceased's creditors that she has died. Generally, this occurs during the time frame while the executor is identifying and valuing assets. The executor must publish a notice in the local newspaper, mail notification to each creditor or both. This results in a second deadline, the time the creditors have to make a claim against the estate for payment. Most states will not allow distribution of assets to heirs before this time period expires. This insures that there is money in the estate to pay all legitimate creditors. In some cases, the executor may have to sell assets to achieve this. In California, creditors have four months to make a claim, beginning with the time they receive notification.
The executor must also file income tax returns, both for the deceased's last year of life and for the estate, if it earns any money during the probate process through interest on investments. If the estate has $5 million or more in assets, an estate tax return must be prepared and filed with the Internal Revenue Service as well. If estate taxes are due, the estate cannot close until the executor receives an estate tax closing letter from the IRS. This can take up to six months if there are no complications, and up to a year or more if the IRS audits the return. The executor probably will not make full distribution of the estate's assets until the estate has cleared this hurdle.
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Final distribution of an estate's assets to heirs usually happens after the executor has completed all necessary probate tasks and has submitted a report to the probate judge, detailing everything she did and the estate's remaining assets after payment of debts, taxes and expenses. In most states, the judge then issues an order allowing the executor to distribute the assets to the heirs. Depending on the complexity of the estate, the overall process to get to this point can take a year or more. The majority of estates usually close within two years. With an uncomplicated estate, distribution might occur within six to eight months.
Some complications can slow probate down even more. For example, if an heir contests the will, this is a whole separate litigation from the probate process, and no distributions can be made until the court resolves the issue.