Estate Planning 101

How Long Does Probate Take in New Hampshire?

In this article, we'll cover the topics that impact the length of probate in New Hampshire, 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 often involves navigating complex processes, one of which is probate. A common question we encounter in New Hampshire is, "How long does probate take?" The answer, however, is not straightforward and can vary significantly depending on a multitude of factors, such as the complexity of the estate, whether a valid will exists, and the efficiency of the executor or personal representative. Generally, probate in New Hampshire can take anywhere from several months to over a year. In the following blog post, we'll delve into what influences the length of the probate process in New Hampshire and offer practical advice on navigating it efficiently.

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

In New Hampshire, as in many other states, the complexity and value of an estate can significantly impact the duration of the probate process. Factors such as the types and quantities of assets involved, the existence of creditors, tax obligations, and potential disputes among heirs can extend the timeline.

Real estate properties, for instance, can significantly impact the timeline. If the deceased owned real estate in multiple locations or states, each property may need to be probated separately in its respective jurisdiction. This can add significant time and complexity to the process.

Moreover, certain types of property, such as businesses, can also complicate matters. If the deceased owned a business, additional steps may 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.

In New Hampshire, the presence of non-probate assets can also affect the timeline. These are assets that transfer automatically upon death, outside of the probate process. Examples 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.

Furthermore, if an estate is valued over $25,000, it must undergo a formal probate process in New Hampshire. This is a more complex and lengthy process than informal probate, which is allowed for smaller estates.

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 will, they are said to have died "intestate". In such cases, their estate is distributed according to New Hampshire's intestacy laws, which can add significant time to the probate process.

Without a will to provide clear instructions, the court must appoint a personal representative, or administrator. This 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, 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 New Hampshire, 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 lengthier. 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 New Hampshire, 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 claim to a portion of the estate. Both types of claims can extend the duration of the probate process significantly.

In New Hampshire, the law requires that the executor, or the personal representative of the estate, notify all known creditors of the decedent's death. The creditors then have a specific period, usually six months from the date of notice, to file their claims against the estate for any outstanding debts. Addressing these claims can be a lengthy process, as the executor must validate each claim before settling it. If the estate lacks sufficient funds to cover all debts, the executor must follow the state's order of priority to determine which debts to pay, which can add to the complexity and duration of the process.

Claims from prospective heirs can also slow down the probate process. In some cases, long-lost relatives or unexpected heirs may emerge after a person's death, claiming a right to a portion of the estate. Alternatively, existing family members may dispute the validity of the will, arguing 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 a significant amount of time and may even involve court proceedings. If a will contest goes to trial, it can dramatically extend the probate process, sometimes by several years.

The probate process — and how long each stage takes:

The probate process in New Hampshire, like many legal procedures, is methodical and consists of several stages. When trying to estimate how long probate might take, it's helpful to understand each of these steps and the typical time each one might require. However, remember that these are just estimates, and the actual timeline can vary significantly based on the factors previously discussed.

  1. Opening the Estate: The probate process begins with filing a petition to open the estate with the probate court in the county where the decedent lived. This step usually happens within a month or so after the individual's death. The court then appoints a personal representative, also known as an executor or administrator, 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 New Hampshire, 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 New Hampshire'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:

There might be cases where you feel the executor of the estate is not fulfilling their duties properly. In such instances, it's important to be aware of your rights and the steps you can take to ensure the estate is managed correctly.

In New Hampshire, 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 probate court.

The first step should typically be to have a discussion with the executor. They may be able to address your concerns directly or provide information that clarifies the situation. However, if this doesn't resolve the issue, you can file a formal complaint with the probate court.

In your complaint, 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 take several actions.

The court could order the executor to provide a detailed report of their actions and the estate's status. Alternatively, the court might supervise the executor more closely to ensure they fulfill their duties. In extreme cases, where the executor has acted in bad faith or has seriously mismanaged the estate, the court may remove them and appoint a new executor.

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.