In the state of Arizona, informal probate proceedings can wrap up in as little as 5 months, though most of the time they take about 6 – 8 months. Formal probate proceedings can take up to one year or longer to conclude. If a trial is necessary, probate cases can take up to two years or more.

 

Formal vs. informal probate

Arizona’s probate laws and procedures are based on the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), a uniform act that was drafted by the NCCUSL to streamline the probate process and standardize state laws surrounding wills, intestacy, probate, and trusts. The UPC was originally adopted by just 16 states (including Arizona), though most states have since adopted portions of the UPC.

Under the UPC, there are 3 formats for probate proceedings:

  • Informal probate – this is the most common type of probate in Arizona. As long as there aren’t any contests or objections, the personal representative to the estate will be free to complete the entire probate process without court permissions, supervision, or “checkpoints.”
  • Formal unsupervised probate – when an interested party to the estate files a contest to the will or an objection to the personal representative, informal probate is suspended until the court can hold a hearing to settle the issues. Once resolved, the personal representative should be free to operate independently again, though the court may require final authorization before the residual assets are distributed.
  • Formal supervised probate – this type of probate is rare since most probate cases don’t require a trial. Depending on the complexity of the case, the personal representative may need to receive authorization from the court before completing any major activities during probate.

 

The probate process

While the length of probate proceedings can vary from case to case, the actual process is basically the same. Whether probate is formal or informal, here’s how the probate process typically unfolds:

  1. Petitioning for probate – if the decedent left a will, the party in possession of the will is usually the one to petition to open probate and submit the will to the court. If there’s no will, or if the party in possession of the will has failed to open probate, any interested party to the estate can petition to initiate probate.
  2. Validating the will – when the court receives the will, a clerk will check to make sure the document is drafted and signed according to state laws. If there’s a problem with the document, or if an interested party successfully contests the will, a probate judge may invalidate part or all of the will. If that happens, the estate will be considered “intestate,” and probate will proceed according to the state’s intestacy laws.
  3. Appointing the personal representative – the personal representative (known as the executor, executrix, or administrator in other states) is the individual who is authorized by the court to manage the estate through probate. If the decedent left a will, the will should nominate someone to serve as the personal representative. If there isn’t a will, or if the nominated individual is deemed unqualified, any interested party can petition to be the personal representative. In rare cases where there is too much discord among the interested parties to agree on a personal representative, the court can appoint a third-party special administrator.
  4. Serving notice to interested parties – once probate has been opened, the personal representative will need to serve notice of probate to all of the estate’s interested parties, and file proof of notice with the court. To account for any unknown creditors, the personal representative will also need to publish a notice in the local newspaper once a week for three weeks.
  5. Gathering the assets – any assets that are subject to probate and are not individually bequeathed by will can be liquidated, and the personal representative will typically gather the proceeds to an estate checking/savings account. Assets that aren’t subject to probate (those with a designated beneficiary or rights of survivorship) can be transferred to the beneficiaries outside of probate.
  6. Settling the liabilities – Arizona probate law gives creditors a minimum of 120 days (4 months) to submit a valid claim against the estate. The time clock begins the day the first notice of probate runs in the local newspaper and ends when the estate is closed. The personal representative will be expected to pay all of the estate’s bills, debts, and taxes before any probate assets can be distributed to the beneficiaries. If the estate is insolvent (meaning there aren’t enough assets to cover the liabilities), the court will help determine priority for payment to creditors, and the estate’s beneficiaries won’t receive any probate assets.
  7. Distributing the residual assets – once all of the estate’s liabilities are settled, the personal representative will be free to distribute the residual assets to the beneficiaries. If the decedent left a will, the final distribution will proceed according to the instructions in the will. If the estate is intestate, then the final distribution will go to the decedent’s legal heirs according to the state’s intestate succession laws.
  8. Closing the estate – when all liabilities are settled, and the assets are distributed, the court will close the estate. Once the estate is closed, creditors will not be allowed to submit claims against the estate, and in most cases the interested parties will have six months to file any final contests or objections.

 

Small estate exception

The state of Arizona offers a small estate exception that’s designed to let smaller estates settle the liabilities and distribute the assets without going through probate. To qualify, the estate must have less than $75,000 in personal property, and less than $100,000 in real property. Qualifying estates simply need to submit a small estate affidavit to the county court to complete the process.

 

Non-probate transfers

Not all assets are subject to probate. In fact, most (if not all) assets can be positioned to transfer ownership outside of probate with the right estate planning tools. Estates that are composed of entirely non-probate assets may not need to be probated and can initiate the transfer process immediately upon the decedent’s passing. This is an ideal scenario, as avoiding probate saves a considerable amount of time and money.

Non-probate assets typically include a joint owner with rights of survivorship, or a designated beneficiary that’s listed on the account. Some of the most common non-probate assets include:

  • Bank and brokerage accounts with a transfer-on-death or payable-on-death beneficiary
  • Retirement plans (IRA, 401k, etc.)
  • Life insurance policies
  • Living trusts

 

Do You Need Help with Probate Matters?

As you can see, AZ probate laws can be complex. It requires a number of steps and without the right approach, it’s easy to get lost in the details.

At JacksonWhite, we can make probate a clear, easy-to-understand process. If you’d like help with probate matters, call the talented team at JacksonWhite Law today.

We can help explain your legal options and direct you to the probate solution that works for you and your loved ones.