When a loved one passes, their will serves as their voice. It lays out what the decedent would like to happen with their possessions, including specifying who inherits what property. In order to ensure everything is done correctly, the estate goes through probate – a legal process overseen by the courts.

What this means is that it can take some time before a decedent’s loved ones actually take ownership of their inheritance. How long, exactly? There are a few factors to consider.

An overview of the probate process

Generally speaking, probate follows the same basic steps for every estate. First, the decedent’s estate planning documents are gathered and their assets are inventoried. The court also officially appoints an executor – the person charged with carrying out what is in the will – and the estate’s assets go through a valuation period to determine their worth.

At this point, no property has legally changed hands.

Next up, the estate has to pay off bills and expenses. In addition, there must be a period of time where creditors – people or companies to whom the decedent owed money – can make a claim, asking for the estate to pay off the debt. There will also likely be tax obligations to sort out.

Only once all of that is over will beneficiaries start to receive their inheritance. It is essentially the last major step in the probate process.

How long does it take from start to finish?

It’s impossible to predict exactly how long the probate process will take for an individual. It depends on many factors, including:

  • The size of the estate
  • The complexity of certain assets
  • Whether anyone challenges the will
  • Guardianship considerations
  • Creditors and debt

At minimum, you should expect the probate process to take a few months. Oftentimes, the creditor claim period itself lasts three months.

For fairly straightforward estates, it can take half a year to get from the first step through to the end (though do not be surprised if it takes longer). For the more complex estates, it may be a year or more. While this timeline may not be ideal, by becoming familiar with the process, you can help manage expectations and properly plan ahead.