One of the last matters to be cleared up during the settling of a deceased person's estate is the distribution of the estate's remaining assets among all of the decedent's heirs. Many factors dictate the amount of time that passes between the death of the estate holder and the distribution of each share of the estate, including the legal status of the will, state probate law and any additional conditions stated in the will. For quicker disbursement, an individual can set up any number of legal accounts that directly transfer assets upon death.
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Testate vs. Intestate
One of the most important factors in determining how long the probate process will take is whether the deceased person died testate or intestate. If the person died with a legal will that states the exact inheritance of each heir, then that person's estate is considered to be testate. If the deceased person is intestate, no valid will was left to determine how the estate should be divided; these types of estates are subject to state law on estate transfers. Both testate and intestate inheritance procedures will reach state probate courts, but intestate processes take longer, since the state must decide how the estate will be divided.
State Probate Law
Once a will reaches the jurisdiction of probate court, state probate laws determine how long it will take for a deceased person's inheritance to be transferred to the rightful heirs. The probate period is designed to settle any accounts left open at the time of the decedent's passing, including any debts owed to or by the estate, clearance of titles or deeds. The probate period also is the time to resolve any disputes over the will's validity or claims on the estate from creditors. The length of the probate period varies from state to state; Oregon state probate takes a minimum of six to nine months, whereas Florida state probate can last up to an entire year.
Conditions of the Will
When drafting a will, the holder of the estate may insert conditions on the inheritance, which may increase the length of time it takes for the heirs to collect. In some cases, this can be many years; in May 2011, the £65 million estate of logging magnate Wellington R. Burt was finally distributed among his 12 heirs after 92 years. If a decedent's will indicates that a certain amount of time must pass before an heir can collect his inheritance, a probate court generally honours this request.
A few alternatives to a legally valid will are available to those drafting a will in the American legal system; some of these alternatives help an inheritance pass through to heirs without involving probate courts. A living trust, easily set up with an attorney, can hold any assets in your name and transfer them directly to a beneficiary on death, avoiding probate altogether.Financial assets, including stocks and bonds, can also be added to "transfer on death" accounts to avoid probate, although these accounts are not valid in either Louisiana or Texas.
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- Oregon State Bar: What Is Probate?
- The Florida Bar: Consumer Pamphlet - Probate in Florida
- CBSNews: "Millionaire's heirs get inheritance after 92 years," May 2011
- Secure Plan Plus: At Death, What Happens to Your Estate?
- Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC: "Help Heirs Avoid the Hassle of Probate," Kathryn A. Walson, November 2007