How Long Does the Executor Have to Pay the Beneficiaries?

Many states don’t set a deadline for executors to pay beneficiaries, but other deadlines can affect the timeline.
Roberta Pescow
By Roberta Pescow 
Published
Edited by Tina Orem

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There’s no standard deadline for paying beneficiaries of a will, but estates complete the probate process in six to nine months on average. Probate laws vary by state, and many states don’t set a deadline at all for executors to pay the beneficiaries of a will.

Approximately when can beneficiaries of a will expect to be paid?

An executor has many responsibilities to take care of before paying beneficiaries.

In general, the time it takes to pay beneficiaries depends largely on the size and complexity of the estate. States have their own rules. For example, here’s how some states address this issue:

  • Virginia: Beneficiaries must receive payment within a year, or else interest accrues at the current legal interest rate until the beneficiary is paid in full. The executor pays the interest, not the estate

    Circuit Court of Loudoun County, Probate Division. Instructions and Duties of an Executor or Administrator (Fiduciary) of a Decedent's Estate. Accessed Nov 20, 2023.
    .

  • Colorado: A court may close the estate if there hasn’t been any action on it in three years

    Colorado Bar Association. Probate in Colorado. Accessed Nov 20, 2023.
    .

  • North Carolina: No fixed deadline for paying beneficiaries, although there are other deadlines to meet during the probate process, such as giving the probate court an inventory of the estate’s assets within 90 days

    North Carolina State Bar - Legal Assistance for Military Personnel. All About Probate. Accessed Nov 20, 2023.

  • Florida: All estates must be open for at least three months in order to give creditors time to come forward with claims on the estate. Simple estates may settle within five or six months

    Florida Bar. Consumer Pamphlet: Probate in Florida. Accessed Nov 19, 2023.
    .

  • New Jersey: No deadline to pay beneficiaries, but tangible personal property must be distributed “as soon as practical” and specific bequests must be distributed within a year “if feasible” to avoid interest

    Mercer County, New Jersey, County Surrogate. Duties of an Executor or Administrator. Accessed Nov 20, 2023.
    .

If you’re unsure about probate timelines where you live, it makes sense to contact a reputable estate lawyer or your district’s probate court.

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How long do you have to transfer property after death?

Executors may have anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to transfer property after death. The time it takes to transfer the property depends on what type of property deed is involved and whether the estate must go through the probate process.

For example, if the property is titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship (JTWROS) or tenancy by entirety, the surviving owners typically automatically get full ownership of the asset and avoid the probate process. Similarly, property titled under a Lady Bird deed lets the owner control a property until their death, and then the property automatically transfers to a beneficiary without going through probate. Property held in a transfer on death (TOD) deed also automatically transfers to a beneficiary when the owner dies, keeping the property from going through probate. Lady Bird deeds and transfer on death deeds are not available in every state, however.

Why does it take so long to get paid?

Although specific probate timeline laws vary from state to state, paying beneficiaries is typically one of the last things an executor must do. Depending on your state, before paying the beneficiaries, an executor may have to:

  • Obtain a copy of the will and file for probate.

  • File a petition with the court to be officially appointed as executor if probate is required.

  • File an estate inventory with the court.

  • Notify banks, creditors and relevant government agencies (such as Social Security) of the person’s death.

  • If required, appear in court on behalf of the estate.

  • Open a bank account to pay the estate’s ongoing bills during probate.

  • Maintain the deceased person’s property until it’s sold or distributed.

  • Pay the deceased person’s debts and taxes.

What if the executor is taking too long?

An executor has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the estate and its beneficiaries

Cornell University Legal Information Institute. Executor. Accessed Nov 20, 2023.
.

Carrying out all these responsibilities can take some time. Exceeding deadlines to pay beneficiaries (if there are such deadlines in place in a particular state) may result in the executor having to pay interest to the beneficiaries.

Beneficiaries who feel an executor is hiding assets or acting dishonestly have a number of options. Talking with the executor and requesting access to documents, an estate inventory and probate progress is often a good place to start, because open communication may help avoid legal action.

If reaching out to the executor doesn’t produce results, you can work with an estate lawyer and file a petition with the court to request certain actions, including:

  • Requiring a full accounting of the estate from the executor.

  • Requiring the executor to obtain a bond to protect estate assets.

  • Requiring the executor to reverse a transaction if he or she stole assets from the estate.

  • Fining the executor for stealing from the estate.

  • Reducing or denying executor compensation.

  • Removing the executor.

  • Criminally prosecuting the executor.

Frequently asked questions

An executor must pay beneficiaries according to the will, regardless of personal feelings. Because the executor has to pay creditors and taxes before paying beneficiaries, however, there may not be enough assets left in the estate to pay beneficiaries the amounts that the will maker intended. Beneficiaries would then receive a reduced benefit.

Executors who hide assets or steal from the estate can face both civil and criminal penalties, including having to return assets, pay fines and attorney’s fees, and even serve jail time.

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