Demystifying Estate Administration in Virginia

Estate and Trust Administration | May 3, 2024 | Jennifer S. Rossettini

This newsletter tackles the complexities of estate administration in Virginia, specifically focusing on common misconceptions that can cause unnecessary stress. We’ll provide clarity on the probate process, executor duties, timelines, and asset distribution to empower you to make informed decisions regarding your loved ones’ legacies.

The Probate Process:

Virginia probate is the court-supervised process of administering a deceased person’s estate (assets and debts). It involves:

  1. Gathering information about the decedent’s assets – you are looking for whether the assets were in the decedent’s name alone (these would be probate assets) or whether they were held jointly with someone else or named a beneficiary to receive the asset at the decedent’s death (these would be non-probate assets).  If there are probate assets totaling more than $50,000, a full probate is necessary.  Keep in mind, however, that real estate in the decedent’s name alone is not necessarily a probate asset.
  • Filing the Will or List of Heirs: Regardless of the total amount of the probate assets, the executor named in the Will should file the original Will with the circuit court in the county or city where the deceased resided.  If the decedent died without a Will, someone entitled to do so by law should file a List of Heirs.  The filing of these documents will, at the very least, transfer title to real estate from the decedent to the beneficiaries named in his or her Will or to his or her heirs at law if there is no Will.  If there are probate assets exceeding $50,000, the filing of these documents will begin the probate process.
  • Inventorying Assets: the Executor must quickly locate and value all of the decedent’s assets as of the date of death.  An Inventory of these assets is due within four months of filing the Will or List of Heirs.
  • Paying Debts: The Executor pays off the deceased’s valid debts with estate funds.  If there are not enough estate funds to pay off all of the debts, it is an insolvent estate and the Executor must pay creditors in a certain order as prescribed by Virginia law.
  • Distributing Assets:  Once debts are settled, the executor distributes remaining assets to the beneficiaries according to the will or Virginia law (if no will exists).
  • Accounting: The Executor must file annual accountings, the first one being due within sixteen months of filing the Will or List of Heirs, to itemize all receipts and disbursements from the estate.  Ideally, the estate can be fully distributed within the first accounting period.

Executor Responsibilities:  An executor in Virginia shoulders a significant responsibility – ensuring the deceased’s wishes are carried out and the estate is settled efficiently and fairly.  The executor has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries. This means acting honestly, responsibly, and avoiding conflicts of interestNot only must the decedent’s assets be valued for purposes of completing the Inventory, but they must be secured and properly insured.  The Executor must also make sure the decedent’s final income tax return is filed and that there are no outstanding taxes due.  The Executor should also keep beneficiaries informed about the estate’s progress and answer any reasonable questions they may have.

Timeline Expectations:

Unfortunately, there’s no fixed timeline for probate in Virginia. The process can take anywhere from six months to well over a year, depending on several factors:

  1. Estate Complexity: Estates with a large number of assets, complex assets (like real estate in multiple states), or business ownership tend to take longer.
  • Existence of a Will: If there’s a clear and uncontested will, probate can move more smoothly. Disputes over the validity of the will or disagreements among beneficiaries can significantly slow things down.
  • Debt and Tax Issues: If the estate has significant debts or complex tax issues, resolving these can add time to the probate process.
  • Court Backlog: The workload of the circuit court can also impact the timeline. Busy courts may lead to delays in hearings and other probate proceedings.

Here’s a breakdown of some potential timeframes:

  1. Simpler Estates: In the best-case scenario, with a straightforward will, limited assets, and no disputes, probate might be completed in six to nine months.
  2. Average Estates: For most estates, a more realistic timeframe is one to two years.
  3. Complex Estates: Estates with significant complications could take several years or even longer to settle through probate.

Jennifer S. Rossettini

Attorney, Shareholder, CFP®
757-399-7506 | 252-722-2890
[email protected]

Jennifer Rossettini is a Shareholder of Hook Law where she focuses her practice in the areas of elder law, estate planning, estate and trust administration, and financial planning. Her practice includes complex estate planning for clients with a net worth over $5 million as well as simple plans for individuals with very limited assets. Ms. Rossettini rejoined the firm in 2018 after spending ten years as a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional with the wealth management divisions of two regional financial institutions. She is a member of the Financial Planning Association, serving as Secretary for the Hampton Roads chapter and serves on the Board of Directors of the non-profit organization, PrimePlus Senior Centers. Jennifer lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and two daughters. She is active in the Girl Scout organization, serving as both a troop leader and as the treasurer for the local Service Unit.

Practice Areas

  • Elder Law
  • Estate & Trust Administration
  • Estate Planning
  • Financial Planning
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