There are three broad phases of the estate settlement process.
First, we need to arrange legal authority for the executor or administrator to manage the deceased person’s assets. (“Executor”
is the term when there’s a will; “administrator”
is the term when there’s no will. Executors, Administrators and Trustees are all called “fiduciaries”.
) Even when a person is named as the executor in the will, that role is not official until the Surrogate’s Court approves the will and issues documents to appoint the executor formally to the job. Gathering the materials for submission to the court can take a few weeks; getting the process through the court can take a few more weeks, or, sometimes, a few months. The time can vary a lot, depending on the exact details of the case.
It’s important to appreciate that courts are very slow-moving bureaucracies. The time required for any action is very unpredictable. But we do this work every day and we check on all our matters very regularly, in order to give you the best results possible.
The second phase begins once the fiduciary is appointed. He or she can then gather the estate’s property. Generally speaking, the goal is to liquidate all assets and deposit them in an estate account. From the estate account, any debts or expenses can be paid. And after all obligations are settled — and after a legally mandated 7-month period has passed to ensure full payment to creditors — then the estate can be distributed.
The final stage, after all the assets have been marshaled, is to prepare an accounting, which explains all the estate’s transactions to the beneficiaries, and to deliver the bequests. Final distributions to beneficiaries must be documented with receipt-and-release agreements, to protect the fiduciary from liability.
We will prepare all the formal documents for you through each stage of the process, and will also see to it that any other required tasks — filing taxes, selling a house, negotiating with relatives — are settled responsibly and in a timely manner.
How long does all of this take?
There are so many variables that there’s no clear answer to this question. A straightforward estate can be settled, start to finish, in perhaps three months. An estate organized in a trust can sometimes be settled in just a few weeks. But various complexities can easily extend the process to a year or even multiple years. We will always do our best to give you a realistic sense of what process is required, and how far along we are.