How To Minimize Delays in the Probate Process

After the passing of a loved one, families must start the probate process to distribute the deceased’s assets to their rightful beneficiaries. 

In some probate cases, a comprehensive estate plan from an experienced estate probate lawyer or a small estate with few hurdles can make the probate process more efficient. However, other probate cases involve extensive paperwork, legal processes, and disputes between family members. As a result, some probates can last several months or years before it is resolved. 

To minimize probate delays, families must have a deep understanding of the process, its common challenges, and effective delay-reduction strategies. 

Understanding the Probate Process

The estate probate process settles a deceased person’s assets and liabilities before distributing them to their rightful heirs. The deceased’s assets undergo probate to be reviewed for validity and claims for any debts and liabilities that must be settled. Whether the decedent had a valid will naming their intended beneficiaries or their state’s inheritance laws are used, their assets must undergo probate. 

The estate probate process can vary depending on the assets, other estate planning instruments involved, and other circumstances.

What Causes Delays in the Probate Process?

Many factors can prolong probate, with some of the most common causes including:

  • Contested Wills: Disputes over the validity of the will or disagreements among beneficiaries. For instance, if one sibling wanted a specific asset given to another sibling, they may contest the will in court, which can significantly delay probate proceedings.
  • Complex Assets: If the deceased owned complex assets such as businesses, multiple properties, or investments, it can take more time to assess their value and determine how they should be distributed.
  • Creditor Claims: If a creditor files a claim for outstanding debts from the deceased, it may require liquidating assets or distributing an asset to the creditor. This can affect which assets are distributed to beneficiaries. This also applies to taxes and other outstanding liabilities. 
  • Missing Documents: If important documents such as financial records or property titles are missing or incomplete, it can delay the probate process while efforts are made to locate them.
  • Real Estate Sales: Some estate probate requires the executor to sell property and divide the proceeds among beneficiaries. A real estate probate attorney can assist with the necessary documentation, but factors such as an unfavorable real estate market can prolong the process. 
  • Court Backlogs: Court schedules and backlogs can also impact the probate process, as hearings and filings may be delayed due to limited court resources or other cases taking precedence.


Ways To Minimize Delays in the Probate Process

1. Consult an Experienced Estate Probate Lawyer

Consulting with an experienced probate attorney or estate planner can provide invaluable benefits, including: 

  • Experienced Knowledge: Probate attorneys possess experience with probate cases and their procedures. This allows them to ensure smooth compliance and minimize errors that delay the process.
  • Comprehensive Assistance: From filing documents to resolving disputes and distributing assets, estate lawyers offer thorough support at every stage.
  • Familiarity with Estate Probate: Attorneys navigate interactions with the probate court smoothly, expediting the administration of the estate.

Sometimes, the deceased may have worked with an estate probate lawyer to handle their estate. This may continue as the executor of the estate. Alternatively, families can work with an experienced estate attorney to handle the probate process. Partnering with an experienced probate attorney streamlines the probate process, minimizes delays, and ensures that the estate is administered efficiently.


2. Organize and Compile Essential Documents

Gather crucial paperwork, such as the deceased’s will, financial records, property deeds, and beneficiary designations for assets like retirement accounts and life insurance policies. Having these ready and up-to-date can streamline the probate process and clarify the estate’s holdings. Executors and legal representatives can navigate the probate process more smoothly when armed with organized documentation, reducing administrative burdens and avoiding unnecessary delays.


3. Open Communication Between Executors (Personal Representatives) and Beneficiaries

The will executor serves as a liaison between the estate and the beneficiaries. Clear and transparent communication ensures that all parties grasp their roles, responsibilities, and expectations, thus fostering a smoother probate process.
Some ways to keep communication open include:

  • Providing the beneficiaries’ contact information so they receive regular updates. 
  • Outlining the beneficiaries’ rights under the will or state law. Inform them of their inheritance, any conditions or restrictions attached to it, and the timeline for the distribution of assets. 
  • Announcing important milestones, such as court hearings or deadlines for creditor claims, keeps beneficiaries informed and engaged in the process.
  • Putting all communication in writing to prevent misunderstandings and provide a transparent record. 


4. Addressing Legal and Administrative Requirements Promptly

Having the necessary documentation is only one step in a smooth probate process. However, the executor and surviving family members must be ready to assist with additional requirements for various steps. To ensure all requirements are provided, executors can do the following:

  • Create a checklist
  • Create a centralized document storage for all files that may be essential
  • Conduct regular reviews of the probate process and inform all beneficiaries of any progress, delays, and issues. 


5. Seek Alternative Dispute Resolution

In case beneficiaries are unsatisfied with how the will distributes assets, it may be more efficient to seek alternative dispute resolution (ADR). If the contest goes to court, probate can be prolonged indefinitely until the matter is resolved. However, if all parties are willing to discuss and negotiate, they can undergo different types of ADR, such as:

  •  Mediation: A neutral third-party mediator allows parties to communicate and find possible solutions. However, the mediator does not impose a decision.

  • Arbitration: An arbitrator hears arguments from all parties and renders a binding decision.

  • Negotiation: Parties discuss a mutually acceptable agreement, such as how to divide their bequeathed assets.

  • Collaborative Law: Parties and their lawyers find a solution without going to court. 


6. Create a Clear Will

These next tips are for individuals with assets who want to minimize probate delays and secure their family’s financial stability. 

One way to minimize conflict is to draft a will that has no ambiguous terms or is written in such a way that it is open to interpretation. This ensures that the deceased’s wishes are carried out as intended. This can also:

  • Prevent Disputes: A clear will reduces the likelihood of family disputes by explicitly stating asset distribution.
  • Identify All Assets: Detailed asset lists expedite asset identification and valuation.
  • Address Special Cases: Addressing special circumstances minimizes the need for court intervention.
  • Avoid Legal Challenges: Clear intentions decrease the chances of legal challenges, saving time and resources.

The best way to create a clear and comprehensive will is to seek the assistance of an estate lawyer. 


7. Use Non-Probate Estate Instruments

Not all assets must undergo probate. Estate planners may recommend using certain financial instruments to transfer assets to intended beneficiaries without being reviewed in probate. These include:

    • Jointly-Owned Property: These are automatically passed to the surviving owner or owners, such as spouses or business partners.
    • Retirement Accounts and Life Insurance Policies: These are passed directly to the designated beneficiary.
    • Payable-on-Death and Transfer-on-Death Assets: These are passed directly to the designated beneficiary. These instruments can include bank accounts, securities, stocks and bonds, and other applicable vehicles.
    • Trusts: A trustee holds the assets on behalf of the beneficiary, allowing the distribution of assets outside of probate. 


8. Explore Small Estate Probate or Summary Administration

In South Carolina, estates considered “small estates” can skip probate. However, they must meet the following criteria:

  • An estate with a net value lower than $25,000
  • No real estate assets
  • No pending or granted application or petition for appointment of personal representative from any jurisdiction
  • At least 30 days have passed since the deceased’s passing

Heirs must file an affidavit for Collection of Personal Property Pursuant to Small Estate Proceedings. After this is notarized and approved by a probate court judge, it can be used with a death certificate to claim the deceased’s assets. 

Alternatively, surviving family members can undergo a summary administration. This is a streamlined probate process for low-valued estates with net worths lower than the sum of the following:

  • $25,000
  • Exempt property allowance (the amount the surviving spouse and dependent children are entitled to)
  • Probate costs
  • Funeral costs
  • Medical expenses incurred during the decedent’s illness

If the estate is worth less than these factors combined, most of the costs will likely consume most of it, leaving very little to divide among the inheritors. The family must file a Verified Statement to Close the Estate.


Experienced Probate Attorney Services at Wiles Law Firm

Navigating the probate process can be daunting, but with careful planning and strategic guidance from an experienced real estate probate attorney, it’s possible to minimize delays and achieve a timely resolution. Families facing probate challenges or needing assistance in navigating the complexities of probate law in South Carolina should seek professional guidance. We invite you to contact Wiles Law Firm for legal counsel and estate and probate law services.

Schedule a free consultation to discuss your case and determine the smartest steps.