Estate Planning 101

How Long Does Probate Take in North Dakota?

In this article, we'll cover the topics that impact the length of probate in North Dakota, 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 important aspect of personal finance, and understanding the probate process is a key part of this. The duration of probate can vary significantly depending on a variety of factors. In North Dakota, the probate process can take anywhere from a few months to over a year. This timeframe depends on several factors, including the complexity and size of the estate, whether the deceased left a will, and how efficiently the executor or personal representative carries out their duties. In this blog post, we will explore the factors that influence the length of the probate process in North Dakota and provide some practical tips on how to navigate it efficiently.

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

The complexity and value of an estate can significantly impact the duration of the probate process in North Dakota. Estates with a variety of asset types, potential creditors, tax obligations, and disputes among heirs are often more complex to probate and therefore take longer.

For example, if the decedent owned real estate in multiple locations or states, each property might need to be probated separately in its respective jurisdiction. This can add significant time and complexity to the process. Similarly, if the deceased owned a business, there may be additional steps required to value the business, transfer ownership, or even sell it. These steps can require specialized legal and financial expertise and can lengthen the probate timeline.

Non-probate assets, which are assets that transfer automatically upon death, outside of the probate process, are also recognized in North Dakota. 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.

The value of the estate can also affect the probate timeline in North Dakota. If the estate is worth more than $50,000, it will likely need to go through formal probate, which is a more complex and time-consuming process than simplified probate procedures available for smaller estates. Additionally, an estate tax return may be required for larger estates, adding to the complexity and duration of the probate process.

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

When an individual dies without a valid will, they are said to have died "intestate". In these cases, their estate is divided according to North Dakota's intestacy laws, which can add significant time to the probate process.

Without a will to guide the process, the court must appoint an administrator to manage the estate, a role similar to the executor named in a will. This can be a time-consuming process, particularly if there are multiple interested parties or disagreements as to who should serve in this role. The responsibilities of the administrator in an intestate estate are also typically more complex, adding to the duration of the probate process.

Potential disputes can arise among heirs in an intestate estate, due to the lack of clear direction from a will. This can lead to legal disputes that can significantly extend the probate process and may even result in court intervention.

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.

A trust is a legal arrangement in which 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 settlor 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 are 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 settlor'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 North Dakota, 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 North Dakota, 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 is often subject to various claims, primarily from creditors and potential heirs. Both types of claims can significantly extend the duration of the probate process in North Dakota.

The executor or personal representative of the estate is required to notify all known creditors of the decedent's death. The creditors then have a specific period, generally three months in North Dakota, to file their claims against the estate for any outstanding debts. Dealing with creditors can be a lengthy process, as each claim must be validated and paid from the estate's funds. 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. This can be a complex and time-consuming process, particularly if the estate is insolvent or if there are disputes over the validity of certain claims.

Disputes among 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, heirs 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 significant time and may even involve court proceedings. If a will contest goes to trial, it can significantly extend the probate process. 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 North Dakota, like many legal procedures, is methodical and consists of several stages. Understanding each of these steps and the typical time each one might require can help you estimate how long probate might take. Keep in mind, however, that these are just estimates, and the actual timeline can vary significantly based on the factors discussed above.

  1. Opening the Estate: The probate process begins with filing a petition to open the estate with the county court. 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, 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. This process can take several months, depending on the complexity and size of the estate.
  4. Payment of Debts and Taxes: The personal representative uses the estate's funds to pay off any outstanding debts and taxes. In North Dakota, creditors have three 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 North Dakota'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 feel the executor of the estate is not fulfilling their duties appropriately, it's important to understand your rights and the steps you can take. In North Dakota, 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 these obligations, you can raise your concerns with the probate court.

The first step is typically to have a conversation with the executor. They may be able to address your concerns directly or provide information that helps explain the delays. If this does not 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, mishandling of estate assets, or failure to communicate important information about the probate process. If the court finds merit in your complaint, it 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 seriously mismanaged the estate, the court may 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.