Estate Planning 101

How Long Does Probate Take in New York?

In this article, we'll cover the topics that impact the length of probate in New York, 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 a complex process, and understanding the timeline of probate is an essential part of it. One of the most frequently asked questions we encounter is, "How long does probate take in New York?" The answer is not straightforward, as it depends on various factors, including the size and complexity of the estate, whether the will is contested, and the efficiency of the executor. On average, probate in New York can take anywhere from several months to over a year. In this blog post, we will delve deeper into the factors that influence the length of the probate process in New York and provide some practical tips for navigating it.

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

In New York, as in many other states, the complexity and value of an estate can significantly affect the duration of the probate process. Factors such as the types and quantities of assets involved, the presence of debts and tax obligations, and potential disputes among beneficiaries can all contribute to the length of the process.

For instance, 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 probate process. Moreover, certain types of assets, such as businesses, require additional steps to value, transfer, or sell the business, which can be time-consuming and may require specialized legal and financial expertise.

New York also recognizes non-probate assets, which are assets that bypass the probate process and transfer directly to the named beneficiaries. 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.

In addition, if an estate is valued over $30,000, it will need to undergo probate, which is a more complex and lengthy process than the simpler small estate administration process used for smaller estates in New York.

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, their estate is distributed according to New York'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, typically a close relative of the deceased. This can be a time-consuming process if there are multiple interested parties or disagreements. Moreover, the personal representative's responsibilities are often more complex in an intestate estate, adding to the duration of probate.

Furthermore, without a will to dictate the distribution of the estate, potential disputes among heirs can arise. This can lead 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 primarily 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 York, 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 York, 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 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 New York, there are legal protocols that require the executor of the estate to notify all potential heirs and known creditors of the decedent's death. The creditors then have seven months from the issuance of letters testamentary or letters of administration to file their claims against the estate for any outstanding debts. Managing these claims can add several months to the probate process, depending on the number and complexity of the claims.

Claims from potential heirs or beneficiaries can also delay the probate process. Sometimes, disputes arise over the validity of the will, the interpretation of its provisions, or the distribution of assets. These disputes can lead to legal proceedings, which can significantly extend the probate timeline.

Moreover, the family exemption in New York can also extend the probate process. This is a statutory allowance for the surviving spouse or minor children of the decedent to claim certain personal property of the estate before creditors and other beneficiaries. Determining this exemption can sometimes lead to disputes and delay the final distribution of the estate.

The probate process — and how long each stage takes:

The probate process in New York, like in many legal procedures, is methodical and consists of several stages. Each stage has its own typical timeline, which can help you estimate the total duration of probate. However, keep in mind that these are estimates, and the actual timeline can vary significantly based on the factors discussed above.

  1. Opening the Estate: The process begins with filing a petition to open the estate with the Surrogate's Court in the county where the decedent lived. This typically happens within a month or so after the individual's death. The court then appoints an executor, who is responsible for managing the probate process.
  2. Notification of Heirs and Creditors: The executor is required to notify all potential heirs and known creditors of the decedent's death. This process can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the number of parties involved.
  3. Inventory and Appraisal: The executor must then inventory the decedent's assets and have them appraised to determine their value. This is a crucial step that affects everything from tax obligations to the distribution of assets among heirs. Depending on the complexity and size of the estate, this process can take several months.
  4. Payment of Debts and Taxes: The executor uses the estate's assets to pay off any outstanding debts and taxes. In New York, creditors have seven months from the issuance of letters testamentary or letters of administration 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 executor can distribute the remaining assets to the heirs according to the decedent's will or New York'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 executor 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:

It's crucial for the probate process to progress efficiently, but there may be times when the executor is not fulfilling their duties appropriately. In these situations, it's important to understand your rights and the steps you can take to ensure the estate is managed correctly.

In New York, the executor has a legal obligation (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 these obligations, you can take legal action by filing a petition in the Surrogate's Court asking for the executor to be replaced.

If the court finds that the executor has failed to perform their duties, it may issue a decree removing the executor and appointing a new one. This is a serious measure and typically only taken in cases where there is clear evidence of misconduct or incompetence on the part of the executor. It's important to consult with an experienced estate attorney if you're considering this course of action.