Estate Planning 101

How Long Does Probate Take in Arizona?

In this article, we'll cover the topics that impact the length of probate in Arizona, including complexity and value of the estate, guardianship, trusts, not having a Will, and claims from creditors or family members.
October 6, 2023

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Estate planning is an essential part of financial management, and understanding the probate process is a significant aspect of this planning. A common question that arises in estate planning discussions is, "How long does probate take?" Specifically, in Arizona, the probate process can last anywhere from a few months to over a year, depending on various factors. In this blog post, we'll explore those factors in detail and provide a comprehensive understanding of the duration of the probate process in Arizona.

The more complex and valuable the estate, the longer things are likely to take:

In Arizona, as in many other states, the complexity and value of an estate significantly impact the length of the probate process. The more varied and valuable an estate, the more time-consuming it is to identify, appraise, manage, and distribute the assets, deal with potential tax obligations, and resolve potential disputes among beneficiaries.

If the deceased owned real estate in multiple states, each property will likely need to be probated separately in its respective jurisdiction, complicating and lengthening the process. Furthermore, certain types of property, like businesses, can add to the complexity. If the deceased owned a business, additional steps might be necessary to value the business, transfer ownership, or even sell it. These steps can be time-consuming and may require specialized legal and financial expertise.

Arizona law also recognizes non-probate assets, which are assets that pass directly to named beneficiaries without going through probate. These include life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and properties held in joint tenancy. While these assets can expedite the process, identifying, locating, and managing them can still take time.

If an estate is valued over $100,000 in personal property or over $200,000 in real property, it will likely need to undergo formal probate. This process is more complex and lengthy than informal probate, which is available for smaller estates.

If the deceased died “intestate” (that means they didn’t have a will), probate usually takes a lot longer:

When someone dies without a valid will, they are said to have died "intestate". In such cases, their estate is distributed according to Arizona's intestacy laws, which can significantly lengthen the probate process.

Without a will to provide clear instructions, the court must appoint an administrator, which can be a lengthy process if there are multiple interested parties or disagreements. Additionally, the administrator's responsibilities are often more complex in an intestate estate, potentially extending the duration of probate.

Moreover, without a will to dictate the distribution of the estate, potential disputes among heirs can arise, potentially leading to legal disputes and court intervention, which can dramatically extend the probate process.

If trusts are involved, the process is usually slower:

While trusts are often used as a tool to bypass the probate process, they can, paradoxically, slow down the process when they are part of an estate undergoing probate. This is largely due to the complexities involved in managing and distributing the assets held in the trust.

A trust is a legal arrangement where one person (the settlor) transfers assets to a trust, which is managed by another person (the trustee) for the benefit of a third person (the beneficiary). When the trustor passes away, the assets in the trust do not need to go through probate because they technically belong to the trust, not the deceased. However, this doesn't mean they're free from complications.

One of the main reasons why trusts can slow down the probate process is because they often require careful administration. The trustee must manage and distribute the trust's assets in accordance with the trustor's wishes, as outlined in the trust agreement. This can be a time-consuming and complex task, particularly if the trust contains a variety of assets or if the distribution instructions are intricate.

Furthermore, if the trust was not set up correctly or if there are questions about its validity, disputes can arise. These disputes can take a considerable amount of time to resolve, particularly if they end up in court. In extreme cases, the entire trust may even need to be probated, which can significantly extend the timeline.

Another factor that can complicate the probate process is the presence of multiple trusts. If the deceased had a number of different trusts, each one will need to be administered separately. This can be a lengthy and complex process, particularly if the trusts have different trustees, beneficiaries, or distribution instructions.

In Arizona, as in other states, trusts can also impact the probate process due to tax issues. Trusts are subject to different tax rules than estates, and navigating these rules can be complex and time-consuming. Depending on the size and nature of the trust, it may be necessary to hire a tax professional to ensure everything is handled correctly.

Matters of guardianship will also slow down the probate process:

When a deceased individual leaves behind minor children, the probate process often becomes more complicated and lengthy. This is primarily due to the need to establish guardianship for these minors, a process that requires court intervention and can significantly extend the timeline of probate.

In Arizona, if a parent passes away and the other parent is already deceased or deemed unfit, a guardian needs to be appointed for any minor children. If the deceased left a will, they likely named a guardian for their children. However, the court still has the final say in this matter. Even if a guardian is named in the will, the court must approve the choice, ensuring it is in the best interest of the children. This review process can take time and may extend the probate duration.

If no guardian has been named in a will, or if the deceased died intestate, the responsibility falls on the court to select a suitable guardian. This can lead to potential disputes if multiple family members or friends wish to be appointed as the guardian. Such disputes can prolong the probate process as the court takes time to review each potential guardian's suitability.

Moreover, the appointed guardian may need to establish a guardianship estate if the minor inherits assets. The guardian is then responsible for managing these assets on behalf of the minor until they reach the age of majority. This process requires court oversight and involves additional court proceedings, paperwork, and potentially, legal fees, which can add to the overall length of the probate process.

Furthermore, it's worth noting that the court will likely require the guardian to post a bond. This is a type of insurance policy that protects the minor's inheritance in case the guardian mismanages or misappropriates the funds. Securing a bond can take time and may add another layer of complexity to the probate process.

Claims on the estate — either from creditors or other family members — can make things take a lot longer:

When an individual passes away, their estate often becomes the target of numerous claims. These are primarily from creditors who were owed money by the deceased, and potential heirs who may have a stake in the inheritance. Both types of claims can have a significant impact on the probate timeline, often extending it considerably.

In Arizona, there are legal protocols in place to deal with claims from creditors. The personal representative of the estate must notify all known creditors of the decedent's death, giving them an opportunity to submit claims for any outstanding debts. The creditors then have a limited time, usually four months from the date of notice, to file their claims against the estate. Reviewing and settling these claims can be a lengthy process, particularly if the estate is insolvent or if there are disputes over the validity of certain claims.

Claims from family members or potential heirs can also slow down the probate process. Sometimes, individuals may emerge after a person's death, claiming a right to a portion of the estate. Family members may also dispute the validity of the will, alleging forgery, undue influence, or lack of testamentary capacity. Resolving these disputes can take a considerable amount of time, often requiring court intervention. This can extend the probate process by several months or even years.

The probate process — and how long each stage takes:

To better understand the timeline of the probate process in Arizona, it's helpful to break down the process into several key stages. However, keep in mind these are estimates, and the actual duration can vary based on the specifics of each estate.

  1. Opening the Estate: This is the first step in the probate process, which involves filing a petition with the probate court to open the estate. This usually happens within a month or so after the individual's death. The court then appoints a personal representative, who is responsible for managing the probate process.
  2. Notification of Heirs and Creditors: After their appointment, the personal representative is required to notify all potential heirs and known creditors. This step can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the number of parties involved.
  3. Inventory and Appraisal: The next step involves the personal representative creating an inventory of the decedent's assets and having them appraised. This process can take several months, depending on the size and complexity of the estate.
  4. Payment of Debts and Taxes: The personal representative then uses the estate's assets to pay off any outstanding debts and taxes. In Arizona, creditors have four months from the notification to file claims against the estate. It can take several more months to fully resolve all claims.
  5. Distribution of the Remaining Assets: After all debts and taxes have been paid, the personal representative can distribute the remaining assets to the heirs according to the decedent's will or Arizona's intestacy laws if there is no will. This step can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
  6. Closing the Estate: The final step in the probate process involves the personal representative preparing a final accounting of the estate and submitting it to the court. Once the court approves this accounting, the estate can be officially closed. This can take a few weeks to a few months.

What to do if your executor isn’t moving probate along properly:

There may be instances where you feel the executor of the estate is not fulfilling their duties appropriately. In Arizona, the executor, also known as the personal representative, has a fiduciary duty to manage the estate in the best interest of the beneficiaries. If you believe the executor is not meeting these obligations, you can take actions to ensure the estate is handled correctly.

The first step is usually to communicate your concerns with the executor. They may be able to address your issues directly or provide information that clarifies the delays. However, if this doesn't resolve the issue, you can file a formal complaint with the probate court.

In your complaint, you should provide evidence of the executor's shortcomings. This might include instances of negligence, mismanagement of estate assets, or failure to communicate important information about the probate process. Upon receiving your complaint, the court may demand the executor to provide a detailed report of their actions and the estate's status, supervise the executor more closely, or in severe cases, remove them and appoint a new executor.

Removing an executor is a serious action and typically a last resort. The court will generally only consider this if there's clear evidence of misconduct or inability to perform the required duties. Always consult with a legal professional before taking such a step.