Most beneficiaries under a will want distribution yesterday. However, the executor -- the person charged with steering the will through probate and administering the estate -- must follow her state's procedures carefully to avoid personal liability. Most states do not set outer time limits on distribution, since estates and estate business vary greatly in size and complexity.
Wills are only paper and ink until they pass through probate. The person drafting the will, termed testator, generally names an executor in the document. If not, the court appoints an executor. The executor captains the will into probate court, from an initial petition to open probate through distribution. Her job includes collecting assets, identifying debts, paying estate taxes and, if necessary, selling estate holdings to obtain cash to pay debtors. Although she must keep heirs informed of her progress, they have little say in the timing of the distribution.
While exact procedures vary among jurisdictions, generally the executor files the will in probate court, then offers the testimony of witnesses to prove that the will signature is that of the testator. The executor can stand back from will challenges or may play an active roll. Once the court accepts the will into probate, the executor collects and inventories assets. Persons claiming a share of the estate who are not named in the will generally have six months to appear and present their case. Most executors wait at least this long before distributing assets.
Petition for Distribution
Once the executor finishes the work involved in administering the will, she prepares a petition asking the court to approve the final accounting and the schedule for distribution of the assets of the estate. This petition is one of the very last documents in a probate action. It advises the court how she intends to distribute the estate -- linking heirs to specific assets -- and outlines the estate's finances.
Although state statutes do not set a minimum or maximum period that an estate remains in probate before distribution, some time frames apply. In some states, such as California, the executor must file a petition for distribution within six months of her appointment or else provide a status report to the court and heirs. Most states set a time limit -- often six months -- for completing distribution after the court approves the petition. Heirs who fear the executor is dragging her feet can bring the matter to the court's attention.