Estate Planning 101

How Long Does Probate Take in Maryland?

In this article, we'll cover the topics that impact the length of probate in Maryland, 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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Understanding the probate process is a crucial part of estate planning, and one of the most common questions we encounter is, "How long does probate take in Maryland?" The timeline of probate in Maryland, as in all states, can vary significantly depending on several factors, such as the size of the estate, whether or not a will exists, and how efficiently the personal representative manages their duties. On average, probate in Maryland can take anywhere from several months to over a year. In this post, we'll delve into the factors that influence the length of the probate process in Maryland and provide some practical tips on how to navigate it effectively.

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

In Maryland, as in many other states, the complexity and value of an estate can significantly influence the duration of the probate process. This is due to the necessity to identify, locate, value, and manage various types of assets, potential debts and tax obligations, and the potential for disputes among beneficiaries or heirs.

Real estate, for instance, can significantly impact the timeline. If the deceased owned property in multiple states, each property might need to be probated separately in its respective jurisdiction, adding to the complexity and length of the process. Moreover, certain types of assets such as businesses can also complicate matters, requiring additional steps to value, transfer, or sell, which can be time-consuming and may require specialized legal and financial expertise.

Maryland also recognizes non-probate assets, which are assets that bypass the probate process and pass directly to the named beneficiaries. These include life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and properties held in joint tenancy. While these assets can help expedite the process, identifying, locating, and managing them can still take time.

For estates valued over $50,000 (or $100,000 if the surviving spouse is the sole legatee), Maryland law requires a regular estate probate process, which is more complex and lengthy than the simplified process for smaller estates. In these cases, a personal representative must be appointed, notices must be sent to all interested persons, and an inventory and accounting of the estate must be filed with the Register of Wills.

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

When a person dies without a valid will, they are said to have died "intestate". In such cases, the estate is distributed according to Maryland's intestacy laws, which can add significant time to the probate process.

Without a will to provide clear instructions, the court must appoint an administrator which can be a time-consuming process if there are multiple interested parties or disagreements. Additionally, the administrator's responsibilities are often more complex in an intestate estate, adding to 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 sometimes 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.

Trusts require careful administration - the trustee must manage and distribute the trust's assets in accordance with the trustor's wishes. This can be a time-consuming and complex task, particularly if the trust contains a variety of assets or if the distribution instructions are complex. Furthermore, if there are disputes about the validity of the trust, it can lead to legal proceedings that may significantly extend the probate 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.

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. The reason for this is the need to determine and establish guardianship for the minors, a process that can significantly slow down probate proceedings.

In Maryland, 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, even if a guardian is named in the will, the court still has the final say and must approve the choice of guardian, ensuring that it is in the best interest of the children.

If no guardian has been named in a will, or if the deceased died intestate, the court must 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.

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 may be subject to various claims, primarily from creditors and potential heirs. Both types of claims can significantly extend the duration of the probate process.

In Maryland, the law requires that the personal representative of the estate notify all known creditors of the decedent's death. The creditors then have a specific period, generally six months from the notification to file their claims against the estate for any outstanding debts. Resolving all claims can take several more months, depending on the number and complexity of the claims.

Claims from family members or other potential heirs can also delay the probate process. Sometimes, long-lost relatives or unexpected heirs may emerge after a person's death, claiming a right to a portion of the estate. Alternatively, family members may dispute the validity of the will, alleging that it was forged, created under undue influence, or that the decedent was not of sound mind when they made it.

Resolving these disputes can take considerable time and may even involve court proceedings. If a will contest goes to trial, it can significantly extend the probate process, sometimes by several years. Even if the dispute is resolved out of court, the negotiations can still add months to the probate timeline.

The probate process — and how long each stage takes:

The probate process in Maryland follows a series of ordered steps, each of which can contribute to the overall timeline. Here's a general idea of what to expect during the probate process:

  1. Opening the Estate: This initial step involves filing a petition to open the estate with the appropriate Maryland Orphans' Court and typically occurs 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: The personal representative is required to notify all potential heirs and known creditors of the decedent's death. This can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the number of parties involved.
  3. Inventory and Appraisal: The personal representative must then inventory the decedent's assets and have them appraised to determine their value. Depending on the complexity and size of the estate, this process can take several months.
  4. Payment of Debts and Taxes: The personal representative uses the estate's funds to pay off any outstanding debts and taxes. In Maryland, creditors have six months from the notification to file claims against the estate. Resolving all claims can take several more months, depending on the number and complexity of the 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 Maryland's intestacy laws if there is no will. This process can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the number of heirs and the types of assets involved.
  6. Closing the Estate: Finally, the personal representative must prepare a final accounting, showing all payments and distributions made from the estate. Once the court approves this accounting, the estate can be officially closed. This final step can take a few weeks to a few months.

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

If you're a beneficiary and you feel the executor of the estate is not fulfilling their duties appropriately, there are steps you can take. In Maryland, the executor, also known as the personal representative, has a fiduciary duty to manage the estate in the best interest of the beneficiaries. This includes completing the probate process in a timely and efficient manner. If you believe the executor is not meeting their obligations, you can raise your concerns with the Orphans' Court.

The first step is usually to have a discussion with the executor. If this doesn't resolve the issue, you can file a formal complaint with the Orphans' Court. You'll need to 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.

The court will review your complaint and, if it finds merit, may order the executor to provide a detailed report of their actions and the estate's status, supervise the executor more closely, or in extreme cases, remove them and appoint a new executor. However, it's important to remember that 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.