How is Inheritance Distributed?

Inheritance of an estate is distributed during what is called the “estate planning process.” All assets distributed to the descendants of a deceased person—the decedent—are done so through this method, where the owner lists all the assets owned.

What Is an Inheritance?

Inheritance refers to the total assets of an estate that may be passed on to its heirs after the decedent passes away. Inheritance can look like many things, including property, stocks, cash, personal items, and more. In most cases, the estate’s owner has a will laying out how the assets should be distributed, and this will is only executable after the estate owner passes away. If the estate owner dies and there is no will, the process could become more complicated. Transferring the estate without a will has different presiding laws and methods per state.

How Does the Probate Process Work?

Probates must be submitted to a court, and the probate court should be within the county where the deceased lived in. The probate court enforced the distribution of assets according to their will, and the executor of the will presides over the process. Before inheritance to the heirs is distributed, the executor must use the estate’s assets to pay off any outstanding debts or taxes to creditors, investors, and the government.

How Is Inheritance Distributed With a Will?

Distributing inheritance is much easier when a will is present. With a will, all surviving heirs receive a portion of the estate. Typically this comes in the form of cash endowments, stocks, real estate, and property. The inheritance may be distributed to children, grandchildren, and other heirs as determined by the stipulations of the will. All asset distribution is determined when the will is written, and the will is specific in who receives what. The simplest way to handle asset distribution is to read through the list of beneficiaries. 

To begin the inheritance distribution process, you must submit the will through probate. After the probate court reviews the will, it’s authorized to an executor, and the executor then legally transfers all assets—again, after settling taxes and debts.

A will is distributed through the probate process. Assets are subject to probate, which is the legal process whereby the courts allow creditors to present claims against the estate. This process also ensures that the estate’s assets are properly distributed amongst the heirs named in the will.

How Is Inheritance Distributed Without a Will?

You can probate without a will. When there is no will, distributing an inheritance may get complicated. Without a will, there is no outline for distribution, and assets may become contested. The probate court must then determine the fairness of estate asset distribution, which can take some time. The court must check to see if the deceased named anyone on retirement plans, stocks, and bank accounts. Distributing objects such as property, heirlooms, and personal items can be difficult. Without a will, the process can take years to resolve. This is when you may figure out that you need a probate lawyer.

How Long Does the Inheritance Process Take?

There are many factors at play that can determine how long the inheritance process takes. Asset value, estate complexity, and contestments can all factor into the process. While a simple estate may be resolved within half a year, complex estates with many assets and value can take years. The process itself can be complicated depending on the courts and estate executor. If there is a tax return required on the estate, it might not be possible to close the inheritance until the IRS accepts the return. In some cases, this can take years. Plus, if there are any disputes because of family dynamics or creditors, it can take even longer.

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When Inheriting, Who Is Responsible for the Debt?

Creditors might attempt to collect debts from the family members of the decedent, but the family members or not responsible for them. The will’s executor must pay any estate debts prior to distributing the inheritance—so if you are one of the heirs, you’re not personally responsible for the taxes, credits, and debts of the estate. If you’re ever confused about who is responsible for the debt, or what portion of the inheritance is owed to you, Skyview Law can help you understand what to bring to a probate lawyer.

How Does Taxing Work for Inheritances?

There is an inheritance tax on many estates. When there is an inheritance tax, that means the beneficiary must pay taxes upon receiving the inheritance. How much you are taxed is dependent on the laws of the state you live in, how large the inheritance is, what assets are included, and the relationship of the heir to the deceased. Taxes are a very important part of all inheritance planning, and it’s a good idea for the author of the will to consider these factors while drafting it.

Important Considerations for the Inheritance Process.

There are a number of things to consider and take away when you are distributing assets after death. Remember, all probates must go through probate court and be approved by a judge. If there is no will, the process could become complicated. When distributing inheritance, make sure that all taxes and debts are paid. If at any point you find that the distribution of assets is too much to handle alone, or you are confused about any aspect of the process, it’s a good idea to have a probate lawyer by your side. Knowledgeable probate lawyers can help facilitate the inheritance process and ensure that everything goes smoothly. If you are looking for a probate lawyer in Washington, give Skyview Law a call today.

Picture of JARROD HAYS


Jarrod Hays is the founder of Skyview Law. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and the Western District of Washington State Federal Court.

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