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Reading the will

Dear Dr. Don,
I'm sure there's no one answer to my question, but how long does it take after someone is deceased before the will is read? Is the estate-process necessarily a long, drawn-out one?
Thank you,
Jeffrey Jurisprudence

Dear Jeffrey,
While each state has its own procedures, it's no longer customary to have a meeting at the lawyer's office where the will is read. What is common to all states is a probate process. In fact, the Uniform Probate Code has been adopted, in some cases with substantial revision, by 18 of the 50 states.

Among other things, the probate process validates the will. In my home state of Florida, the law requires that the original will be deposited with the clerk of the probate court within 10 days after death. The person named as the "personal representative" then must file a petition to admit the will to probate and obtain letters of administration, which authorize that person to deal with the decedent's property. Interested parties receive a copy of the petition and the will.

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Formal probate in Florida requires publication of a "notice of administration" that gives creditors 90 days to file claims. For smaller estates, there are several forms of abbreviated probate in Florida. Normally it is expected that the administration of the estate would be completed within one year. However, if the estate is taxable, it typically takes longer to obtain an estate-tax closing letter from the IRS. The table below shows the size of an estate that requires an estate-tax filing.

Year of death Filing requirement
2000 and 2001
2002 and 2003
After 2005
Source: IRS

Probate procedures vary, depending on the size of the decedent's estate. For smaller estates, most state laws provide for the distribution of assets without formal probate proceedings. Many states also provide for family settlement agreements, or private agreements between the beneficiaries of a will.

A court order is still required to protect the estate from future creditors and to provide clear title to the assets. Larger estates require formal probate proceedings. It takes longer to complete this process, and it's more expensive than the informal procedures used in smaller estates.

Working with an attorney in estate planning can help minimize the assets subject to probate. However, if you're waiting around for someone's will to be read, then estate planning isn't an available option to the decedent.

-- Posted: March 6, 2002

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See Also
Leaving your estate to your children
Worried about estate taxes?
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