Often, a distant relative is notified by an estate’s executor or administrator of the death of a relative and any steps to be taken to claim their inheritance. A recent article from yahoo! finance, “How Long Will It Take For My Beneficiaries to Get Notified After Death?” explains how the process works. Every state has its own laws on this topic, but there are some basics you’ll need to know if you’re facing this situation.
Estate and property law are two of the most state-specific sets of laws; in many cases, these laws conflict with those of other states. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to help figure out what your next steps are. And don’t start spending your inheritance too quickly—a number of things have to happen before your inheritance—if you indeed have one—arrives.
When someone dies, the total amount of their property, cash, assets, and debts is called their “estate.” The court-ordered process of distributing the estate is known as “probate.” If there was a will and an executor was named, the executor is in charge of administrating the estate. If there was no will, the person died intestate, so the court will name an administrator. The chief difference between an executor and an administrator is mainly the title. Both are responsible for paying the estate’s debts and distributing assets to named and legal heirs.
In some states, the executor, heirs, and any interested parties must file for probate within 30 days of the decedent’s death. In other states, you have three years to file for probate. However, in all cases, heirs may not be formally notified of their inheritance until the probate process begins and the executor or administrator starts working on the estate.
Once probate begins, the executor must notify all heirs and potential heirs of their inheritance. If there is a will, the most common rule is for the executor to notify all known and named beneficiaries within 90 days of the start of probate. However, this can also vary from 15 days from the first hearing date to a year or more for notifications.
These rules apply only to known beneficiaries. During probate, the executor may learn of new or unresolved inheritance issues, and then heirs are notified as they are identified.
If the estate has no will, the rules are different. First, the administrator must identify potential beneficiaries based on state law and family records. Sometimes the only source for this information comes from family members who come forward and identify themselves. The administrator is required to make a public notice of the deceased so any unknown heirs have a chance to come forward. The notice usually runs in a local newspaper, and different states have different rules regarding how long it needs to appear in print.
After the heirs have been notified, there is a waiting period for any distributions. This is common, as real estate or other high-value assets may be sold and their value added to the state. If the state requires a waiting period, it’s often six months from when heirs are notified and when they can receive their inheritance. This allows enough time for any interested parties to come forward and contest the inheritance.
An experienced estate planning attorney can help the executor or administrator move through the process of settling the estate.