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The question of when your heirs will receive their inheritance can be almost as important as what they will receive, especially for dependents such as spouses and children.

When assets will be received by heirs differs depending on how the assets pass. For instance, if they pass automamtically because of the way the asset is titled, the transfer can be very fast. If they pass through the will, it can take time for the asset to pass to your heir - sometimes even years. For information about each of the various types, see the other sections of this article.


  • If your heirs need money while your estate is being probated, they can request an advance from the Personal Representative/Executor from time to time. If the Personal Representative/Executor declines, heirs can petition the court for advances.
    • The only question should be whether cash is or can be made available to satisfy the request. However, Personal Representatives/Executors have been known to consider whether any particular request for an advance is worthy. If the beneficiary has to ask the court for an advance, the judge may also impose his or her own belief as to whether the advance is a good idea.
    • You can also expect that a Personal Representative will be reluctant to distribute any money which the Personal Representative would have to pay personally if it were needed for estate purposes after the money had been distributed - such as to pay a tax deemed to be due after an audit. Personal Representatives are personally liable in this situation. Sure, the personal representative could theoretically get the money back from the person to whom it was distributed. However not many people are willing to take that risk.
  • If you live in one of twelve states -- Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tennessee -- your heirs may have to pay taxes on the right to receive their inheritance.  Most states exempt spouses from inheritance taxes. Some states exempt children and parents from tax, or tax them at lower rates.

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Assets That Pass Through A Will

Assets that are distributed through your Will usually take the most time to become available to your heirs.

Probate, the process of proving your Will and settling your estate, can take as long as two years even without any complications -- and a lot longer with complications.

The amount of time it takes to distribute your assets during probate is not necessarily related to the size of your estate. Even small estates can take a long time to be settled.

In some states and with some estates, this period can be a lot shorter -- perhaps just a few months.

While your beneficiaries may receive an advance against the assets you leave them, they won't receive ownership of assets until the end of the probate.

Probate is by nature a slow process, even without complications, because:

  • Most Personal Representatives/Executors hire attorneys and accountants to do most of the actual work involved in administering the estate. Most attorneys work to deadlines, and everything else gets done when there's time. Administering an estate usually falls into the latter category -- even when beneficiaries push for fast work.
  • Since your bequests will be paid in cash unless you specify otherwise, it takes time to sell things appropriately.
  • A federal estate tax return and, perhaps, a state estate tax return, has to be filed and any taxes must be paid, before the deadline of nine months after the date of death. An income tax return must also be filed and income taxes paid. If there is the possibility that more tax will be due, a Personal Representative/Executor usually won't distribute any of your assets until the returns have been signed-off by the IRS and often the state as well. See Estate Taxes for more information.
  • Generally, your estate cannot be settled until the court and/or your beneficiaries review a detailed accounting of your estate. An accounting is not prepared until the probate is about to be ended. It's hard to push an attorney to prepare the accounting quickly. If there are questions, the process can go on and on.

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Assets That Pass Automatically

Assets that transfer automatically should in theory be immediately available to the person to whom they pass, but this is often not the case.

Assets that pass to a joint owner upon death can be held up pending court appointment of the Personal Representative/Executor and his or her obtaining tax waivers from the state.

Life Insurance and Retirement Plan Account Funds: Assets such as life insurance proceeds or retirement plan account funds, can also take a few months to receive. Life insurance proceeds are likely to be paid within 30 days of the filing of the claim. However, if there are circumstances that make an insurer sit up and take notice, such as a policy that was in existence for less than two years, it can be many months before the benefit is paid.

With a retirement plan, the plan sponsor can hold up retirement plan distributions.

Bank Accounts

Bank accounts solely in your name will be frozen during the probate process until your Personal Representative/Executor is appointed, unless you've set them up as "payable-on-death" accounts or otherwise registered them so that they pass automatically.

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How To Avoid Probate

Safe Deposit Boxes

In most states, as soon as a bank learns of the death of a box holder, it must seal the safe-deposit box and prevent entry by anyone until the court appoints a representative for the estate.

The box is then opened in the presence of the taxing authority as well as the named beneficiary or co-owner of the box, if any. This can take weeks or months or even longer.

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Safe Deposit Boxes


Since title to the assets in a trust does not have to be changed at death, the use of, or benefit from, assets in a trust can pass immediately upon death. The trustee can distribute property directly based on the instructions you spelled out in the trust document.

If the idea of using a trust is of interest to you, read our article on trusts, particularly Revocable Living Trusts – before you see a lawyer. As you will read, we do not recommend that you set up a revocable living trust without at least having an attorney review the documents.

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Trusts 101

Inheritance Taxes

If you live in one of twelve states -- Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tennessee -- your heirs may have to pay taxes on the right to receive their inheritance.

Most states exempt spouses from inheritance taxes. Some states exempt children and parents from tax, or tax them at lower rates.