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Understanding the Time It Takes to Settle an Estate

In this article:

    The time it takes to settle an estate depends on several factors. In this article, we’ll discuss factors that can influence estate settlement duration and how making a will and other estate planning documents can help you settle an estate much quicker.

    Introduction to Estate Settlement

    Estate settlement refers to the process of settling all of a deceased person’s debts, taxes, and liabilities, and then distributing their assets to their beneficiaries

    If the deceased person had a will, the estate administration process would be managed by an executor and would follow the last wishes documented in the deceased’s will

    If the deceased person died intestate, or without a will, the estate administration process would be managed by a court-appointed executor, based on the inheritance laws and regulations of the deceased’s province or territory.

    Learn more about receiving an inheritance in Canada

    The settlement process begins after probate, if probate is required, and finishes once the estate has been completely distributed and the executor has provided a final accounting to the beneficiaries. Estate settlement is the implementation of the deceased’s estate plan and the fulfillment of their last wishes.

    Role of the Executor in Settling an Estate

    When you make an estate plan, your executor is responsible for helping to execute the wishes outlined in your will, settling the lingering debts and liabilities of your estate, and distributing funds to your beneficiaries.

    Executor responsibilities and duties include the following: 

    • Organizing your funeral and burial wishes
    • Applying for probate (not always required)
    • Communicating with all relevant parties
    • Paying off estate debts
    • Recovering outstanding debts owed to the estate
    • Submitting tax returns
    • Distributing assets to beneficiaries

    However, there are factors that may affect an executor’s ability to settle an estate quickly. Sometimes progress on the estate slows because of the executor themself, while other factors have to do with whether there is a will or not, how complex the estate is, and whether the estate faces any challenges. 

    Read more: Tips for choosing your executor so your estate gets settled quickly →

    Factors Influencing Settlement Time

    Here are key factors that influence the settlement time of an estate:

    1. Size and Complexity of the Estate

    Larger estates or those with complex asset structures, such as multiple properties, investments, or business interests, often need more time for settlement due to the intricacies involved in valuing and distributing these assets.

    2. Presence of a Will

    The existence of a clear and legally valid will can significantly speed up the settlement process. A will provides explicit instructions on asset distribution based on the deceased’s final wishes, which helps reduce the likelihood of disputes among heirs, beneficiaries, and interested parties. It also streamlines the executor's responsibilities. 

    If the deceased did not have a will, there are different steps involved in settling their estate, and the process may take longer than if they had a will.

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    3. Creditor Claims and Debts

    If there are outstanding debts and creditor claims against the estate, executors must address these obligations before distributing assets to beneficiaries, which may lead to a longer settlement process. If the debt and liability situation is also complex, this can add even more time to settling the estate.

    4. Estate Tax Considerations

    While there is no inheritance tax in Canada, executors do need to file a final income tax return for the deceased as well as file any other necessary tax returns. These things take time, especially if the deceased’s tax situation is complex or their executor does not have applicable experience filing final taxes.

    Addressing taxes is important for the settlement process, as the executor needs to get tax clearance certificates from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to move forward with settling the rest of the estate.

    If probate is required, estate administration tax will need to be paid on the value of the estate assets.

    5. Executor Competency and Availability

    The efficiency and availability of the appointed executor or personal representative play an important role in how quickly an estate gets settled. An experienced and proactive executor can expedite the settlement process, but an executor without experience or with little availability may lead to delays in applying for probate, settling debts, and overall managing the estate.

    6. Laws, Regulations, and Government Efficiency

    Estate settlement is subject to province or territory-specific laws and regulations. Jurisdictions with higher population density or more complex legal requirements for wills or probate processes may experience longer settlement times. 

    The unfortunate reality is that despite some governments suggesting that probate applications can be processed in 15 days, it sometimes takes months due to backlogs. 

    7. Family Dynamics and Disputes

    It’s hard to lose a loved one, and grief can change us. Legal challenges to the will, disagreements over asset distribution, or contested executor appointments can all contribute to an extended settlement period, as the settlement process may be put on hold until challenges are resolved.

    Average Timeframe for Settling an Estate

    The rule of thumb in Canada is that the executor is expected to settle the estate within a year of the date of the deceased’s death. The average time for settling an estate is, as such, around 6-12 months, with the process often being quicker if probate isn’t necessary and no complications arise.

    The probate process in British Columbia, for example, mandates at least 21 days between submitting the first form for notifying all relevant parties and submitting the second form for an estate grant application. Because of this, the probate process in BC usually takes around two to three months from start to finish.

    Tips for Efficient Estate Settlement

    The estate plan you create today will make it easier for your loved ones to settle your estate in the future and will impact the time it takes to do so. Consider the following steps when creating your estate plan:

    1. Make a will or update your existing will to reflect any recent life changes
    2. Create an updated list of assets
    3. If it makes sense for your circumstances, consider owning assets jointly and having beneficiary designations on your registered accounts and life insurance policies, so that probate may not be required.
    4. Appoint someone you trust to make decisions when you cannot with power of attorney documents
    5. Settle any outstanding debts and liabilities as soon as you can
    6. Communicate your plan with your executor, guardian, and beneficiaries

    You can help your executor fulfill their role if you keep them updated when you make changes to your will, and informed about how complex your estate is, and what debts and liabilities you may be carrying. 

    Checking in with your executor gives them the opportunity to let you know if they no longer want or have time for the role, so you can appoint a new executor.

    How long do most estates take to settle?

    It usually takes anywhere from 6-12 months for an executor to settle an estate, but there are other factors that can influence this, such as jurisdiction, probate time, executor’s ability and experience, complexity of the estate, or challenges. 

    How long does it take to pay a beneficiary?

    Assets are distributed to beneficiaries at the end of the estate settlement process, so an inheritance timeline can take anywhere from 6-12 months or even longer if complications occur. 

    How long does it take to release money from the estate?

    Assets or legacy gifts are often released to beneficiaries at the end of the estate settlement process. Still, there can also be interim distributions, which happen during the settlement process at the discretion of the executor or estate trustee. 

    Take time now, get time later

    Creating a will doesn’t have to be time-consuming. In fact, online will creation with a digital will service like Willful can take as little as 20 minutes! By taking the time today to make your estate plan and get your essential documents in order, you can help protect the time and peace of your loved ones in the future.

    Start your estate plan today →

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