Slogging through a seemingly endless probate process is the last thing you want to do while you’re in the midst of grieving for the loss of a loved one. So, it’s only natural to want to know how long the probate proceedings will take—especially when you’ve got a big asset like the house to deal with.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question.
The American Bar Association (ABA) estimates the timetable at six to nine months for the average estate. However, a 2018 survey by Estate Exec found that estate settlements take sixteen months on average.
But probate doesn’t always take that long.
Just ask expert probate real estate agent Raylene Lewis, who has over 18 years of experience and ranks in the top 5% of agents in the College Station, Texas area.
“It all depends on your state’s probate laws. In Texas, if you’re an only child, there’s a will in place, and everything goes according to plan, you could go through probate in three weeks. However, most people are looking at a minimum of eight to 12 weeks to properly go through probate.”
So, how do you determine how long probate will last for you? Let’s take a look at the five biggest probate timeframe influencers.
5 variables that can impact your probate timeline
There are a lot of factors that can result in the probate process speeding up or dragging on, but there are a handful of major influencers:
1. State probate laws
The biggest reason there’s no definitive answer to the length of probate question is because it’s not nationally regulated, which means probate rules vary from state to state.
That’s why in Texas, with its simplified process and minimal court oversight, probate can be completed within just a few weeks if all goes well. Whereas in other states, it can take up to two years.
Luckily, 18 states have taken steps to refine and simplify the probate process via the American Bar Association-approved Uniform Probate Code (UPC). Whether these states have adopted the UPC in part, or in its entirety, they’ve all taken steps to streamline the process, which in turn shortens the probate timeline.
However, things become less streamlined when the estate has assets in multiple states.
For example, let’s say the majority of the decedent’s assets are located in Texas, including the primary residence. However, it also includes a second property, a vacation home in Florida.
In this scenario, you’ll need to open up the primary probate proceedings in Texas, and go through a second probate proceedings in Florida, which is known as ancillary probate.
State laws play a huge role in determining the length of probate, however they aren’t the only factors that could influence your probate timeline.
2. The estate’s size
It makes sense that the size of the estate heading into probate plays a major role in how long the process will take. The more assets involved, the more decisions need to be made, the more paperwork that needs to be done, and so on.
However, it’s not always the amount of assets that matters. Some state laws focus more on the overall value of the estate.
The good news is that, if your probated estate is one of the 76% valued under $500,000, then your proceedings will likely be wrapped up within 14 months—unlike those valued over $500K, which may take anywhere from 16 to 42 months to settle.
Unfortunately, figuring out how much the decedent’s estate is worth according to your state’s probate laws all depends on the type of assets involved.
While the laws defining which assets must go through probate, and which are non-probate assets, there are some assets which almost always require probate, unless steps have been taken to avoid it.
One asset that almost always requires probate is a house. Probate proceedings are required when real estate is involved almost universally. However, some states still allow you to forego or shorten probate for low value properties.
For example, if the total value of an estate’s real estate is less than $100,000 in Arizona then you can simply submit a small estate affidavit to claim your inheritance.
3. Conflict among the heirs
There’s another way to look at size in regards to probate that has nothing to do with an estate’s value and assets—look at the number of heirs or beneficiaries involved.
Even probate proceedings for lower-valued estates can become bogged down if there are multiple beneficiaries. This is especially true if there’s disagreement about how the estate should be handled.
“How long it takes to sell a house during probate depends on the heirs, and whether or not everybody’s willing to work together to get the property sold,” says Lewis.
It’s practically a law of nature that siblings will fight, but when you bring sibling bickering into the probate process, the proceedings come to a grinding halt.
The biggest dispute beneficiaries have is when one party contests the will, but the disagreements don’t need to be that massive to delay probate.
Picking fights over little things can derail the process too, such as arguing over whether or not to sell the house as-is, or how much to spend on replacing the carpet if you do decide to rehab before selling.
4. Will vs. no will
Conflict between beneficiaries can often be resolved by referring to the will or letting the estate executor cast the deciding vote. But that’s not always the case.
Sometimes the will isn’t clear or specific enough. Sometimes the will isn’t properly signed, witnessed, or accompanied by a notarized, self-proving affidavit. And sometimes there is no will.
When there’s a will:
Probate is typically easier—and shorter—when there’s a will involved.
When a will is well done, the decedent will include specific instructions on how their estate is to be dissolved, and will often name the personal representative or executor they want to handle the proceedings.
Just don’t make the mistake of assuming that having an existing, valid will means you can skip probate altogether.
Some estates require probate simply to carry out the will’s terms and distribute the estate—especially if the decedent has debts and creditors that must be paid off before beneficiaries can take ownership of the assets.
And sometimes, mistakes within the will can trigger probate—even if the existing will attempts to avoid the probate process.
Maybe the decedent made mistakes while signing the will, or failed to have the signing witnessed, or perhaps they simply failed to update it. For example, maybe the decedent moved out-of-state after completing their will, which means the existing one won’t meet the new state’s probate laws.
Of course, a will doesn’t need to be invalid for beneficiaries to contest it. Heirs could claim that the decedent was coerced into signing the will, or lacked the mental capacity to understand what they were signing, or even deceived about the contents of the will.
While there are plenty of grounds to contest a will, it’s rarely advisable, especially when there isn’t actual fraud involved.
Think twice before contesting if you’re simply looking to resolve sibling squabbling. The
legal costs involved in contesting a will—both to file the complaint and defend the will—is more likely to deplete the estate’s value than resolve the issues.
When there’s no will:
There are two myths swirling around about what happens when people pass away without a will:
- The state gets everything
- The estate must go through probate
Thankfully, that first myth is largely untrue. The only way the state gets your stuff is if you pass away without any beneficiaries to inherit.
On the other hand, if the no-will decedent does have a spouse, children, siblings, or other surviving relatives, then they are the legal heirs, with or without a will. The state simply gets involved in the dispersal of the estate via probate.
That fact makes myth two generally true.
However, no-will estates don’t always require probating—especially for small estates.
Some states have laws to simplify or remove probate requirements for small or low-value estates. Others even have provisions to allow larger estates to qualify for small estate simplifications.
Simplifying or skipping probate isn’t possible in some states though if there’s a house involved.
5. The estate includes a house
As previously mentioned, estates that include a house almost always require probate. This is in part because the decedent’s home is often sold during the probate process as part of the dissolution of the estate.
And anyone who’s ever sold a home knows that the sale process is both complex and potentially lengthy, even without the extra burdens added by probate.
For starters, you can’t even hire a real estate agent until the court legally names you as the personal representative, or executor, for the estate. In fact, you’re legally not allowed to do anything with the house until that happens.
This means no cleaning it out, no painting it, and no listing it for sale. Nothing.
What you can do prior to becoming named as the executor is contact a qualified probate agent to determine the home’s current market value—because that value can influence whether or not an estate even requires probate at all.
So, before starting proceedings through a probate attorney, the smart play is to consult with an experienced real estate agent—without signing a listing agreement, which you are not legally allowed to do if the estate is headed into probate.
There are ways for an estate to avoid probate even if there is a house attached, however most of these arrangements need to be made before your loved one passes away.
For example, the decedent’s house can be placed into a living trust. Prior to passing away, the decedent remains the trustee and manager of the living trust.
Once they die, their appointed successor can immediately manage and distribute the trust without waiting to be appointed as the personal representative by the probate court.
Even if arrangements haven’t been made to transfer property outside of probate, the probate process is much simpler and quicker if ownership of the house is simply being transferred from the decedent to an heir.
However, when real estate is being sold during the probate process, the proceedings become more complex, and lengthy.
3 ways selling a house can lengthen the probate process
Maybe you’re selling your inherited home because you just can’t keep it. Or perhaps the house must be sold in order to pay off the decedent’s debts. In either case, there are three major ways that the home sale can drag out the probate timeline:
1. You’re selling in ‘as-is’ condition
The longer you live in a house, the more things you’ll find that you want to repair, or remodel. But how do you know what to fix when you’re selling a home that you’ve never actually lived in?
The answer is: you can’t know what work your inherited house needs. Luckily, this answer can work in your favor.
As always, the laws vary by state. In many states a seller’s disclosure form isn’t required for probate home sales because the beneficiary has never lived in the house. However, in other states you may need to disclose visible defects, even if you’re not exactly sure when or how they occurred.
So, should you invest estate assets in fixing the place up before you sell the property?
“Very rarely would I recommend pulling money from the estate into fixing up the probate property before selling it, even if the house is dated or rundown,” advises Lewis.
“At the end of the day, you won’t even break even on any money you put into it because you’re trying to fix up a property that you’ve never lived in, so you won’t know what needs to be done.”
Unless you’re selling in a red hot market where all houses are selling fast—finding a buyer to pay what the house is worth may take awhile.
2. Local real estate market conditions
When you’re making the decision whether or not to fix up your inherited house before selling, knowing what’s going on in the local real estate market is essential.
There are essentially three market types you need to know about:
In this scenario, you’ve got a low inventory of houses for sale and lots of buyers—so even as-is properties sell like hot cakes.
If you’re listing your probate property in a seller’s market, you’re probably safe in selling as-is because buyers are snapping up properties as fast as they come available. And that desperation to just get into a house will make them willing to put up with the extra red tape and hoop jumping that probate home sales require.
In this market type there are loads of homes for sale, but few buyers biting—so even totally remodeled homes may sit around awhile before selling.
If you’re listing in a buyer’s market, selling the probate home as-is will extend the probate process. Not only do you need to contend with all the competition from homes in better condition, but you have the added detraction of probate complicating the sale.
No buyer will waste time making an offer on an as-is, probate sale property in a buyer’s market unless you’re selling at a steep discount.
This is the in-between market condition with an equal amount of available homes and buyers buying—so houses are selling steadily, though not too speedily.
Investing estate assets in fixing up an as-is probate property is a toss up when you’ll be listing in a balanced market. Sure, a rehabbed home will sell a bit faster and for more money—but you risk investing more than you make from the sale.
On the other hand, the longer it takes to sell the home, the more you’ll be spending on things like utilities, property taxes, and vacant home insurance.
Not only do you need expert help in identifying current market conditions, you need an expert agent to assist you in running the numbers to determine which repairs, if any, are the most cost effective to make.
3. Your agent lacks probate experience
Any worthy agent can pull comps to create a comparative market analysis (CMA), which will tell you how much the home is worth, and whether it’s worth it or not to invest any money into the probate property before selling.
Unfortunately, if you hire just any agent, you may be sabotaging your timeline if they don’t have significant probate experience.
“It’s really important to work with a professional when you’re dealing with a probate situation,” says Lewis.
“An agent who specializes in the probate process will be able to navigate you through any potential rough waters, and can fill you in on the pros and cons of each decision you’ll need to make. You’ll save a lot with guidance from an agent, not just in dollars, but also in time, effort and energy.”
While a probate home sale is quite similar to a traditional home sale in many ways, there are probate-specific details that your agent needs to manage. This includes things like using the proper probate contracts, listing the home as a probate property, and making the correct probate disclosures.
If these details aren’t in order at your final probate hearing, the probate court judge won’t be able to finalize the probate proceedings. You’ll need to redo the paperwork and schedule a new hearing, causing the lengthy probate process to drag on even longer.
For most standard probate cases, an agent who has verifiable probate experience is all you need. However, if you’ve got a complex estate, say one that’s high value, or has properties in multiple estates, you may need to recruit a specialist.
Known as Certified Probate Real Estate Specialists (CPRES), agents who’ve earned this designation have received specialized training from the U.S. Probate Services. These agents are educated to deal with the complexities of both probate home sales and court confirmation procedures.
However, it’s not necessary for your agent to have the CPRES certification if they have state-specific probate training.
Some states, such as Arizona, offer their own probate training materials that focus on state-specific regulations. There are also conferences that address probate laws and procedures.
So, ask potential agents to tell you about all probate training and education they’ve had—because the more your agent knows about the process, the faster your probate home sale will go.
The probate timeline in a nutshell
The best way to avoid lengthy probate proceedings is to skip the need for probate altogether. The process of avoiding probate varies by state, and typically must be done before the decedent passes away with proper estate planning.
While there are too many variables to offer up a cut-and-dried probate timeline, there are definitely steps you can take to speed the whole process up.
You need to educate yourself on local probate laws, keep all beneficiaries on the same page, and most importantly—enlist qualified experts to guide you through the probate proceedings as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Header Image Source: (David Sherry/ Death to the Stock Photo)