We recently had a situation where a daughter was left a bequest under her mother’s Will. 

Soon after her mother’s passing, she was looking to purchase a property personally.   She thought she would have the funds for a deposit on the property from the gift in her mother’s Will, as she thought the funds would come through to her within a couple of months of her mother’s passing.  

When she found out from the Estate’s lawyer that it would take some months for the funds to come through, it meant she could not rely on using these funds for the deposit as she thought she could.  Fortunately she had not yet signed an Agreement to purchase a property, so decided to put her search for a property on hold until she received the funds.

It is the question that many feel too guilty to ask:  “How long until I receive my inheritance?”

As a rough guide, and for a typical Estate, the short answer is between 6 months and a year from when Probate is granted, but this of course depends on the nature of the Estate.

This is the general process for a typical Estate where there is a valid Will:

1.    Locate the Will

The family, or someone close to the family, should find and read the Will.  The original Will is most likely to be held with the lawyers who drafted it, but the Will-maker should have had a copy of the Will somewhere.  It is worth noting that it is now common practice for lawyers to email a copy of the signed will to a Will-maker so if the family cannot locate a hard copy, then it is possible there may be an electronic copy stored on the deceased’s computer or email account.

2.    Funeral Arrangements

The Will may outline the deceased’s wishes regarding their funeral and/or whether they want to be cremated or buried (and even whether they want their organs donated).  The Will should be checked for any directions.  Knowing the deceased’s wishes regarding this can save unnecessary time, and potential painful family disputes at what is already a difficult time.

3.    Contact the Lawyers

The Executor calls the lawyers they wish to instruct to act for the Estate, and then takes all relevant documents to those lawyers for example:

  • Bank statements;
  • Details of any investments or shares owned by the deceased;
  • Details of any life, medical or house insurance policies;
  • Details of any property owned by the deceased;
  • Any outstanding bills;
  • The deceased’s personal IRD number;
  • The deceased’s agreement to occupy a unit in a retirement village (if applicable):
  • The deceased’s important documents such as birth and death certificates.  This should also include deceased’s passport or driver’s licence.

It will also be necessary for Executors to take along their photo ID and proof of address as the lawyer acting for the Estate will be required to certify these before they can start acting for the Estate.

Again, it is important to note that some of this information may be stored electronically on the deceased’s computer or via their email account.

4.    Probate

Executors need the High Court’s approval to begin the administration of the Estate.  To obtain this approval, called “Probate”, Executors sign an affidavit prepared by the lawyers which is filed in the Court along with other documents. 

Obtaining Probate typically takes 4 to 6 weeks from when the documents have been lodged with the High Court, but this can vary if a more complicated affidavit is required and depending on how busy the High Court is at the time.

If there is no Will, then there is an alternative application which needs to be made called “Letters of Administration”.  Your lawyers would talk you through this process.

5.    Assets

The lawyers write to all the Banks and other institutions where the deceased held assets and those assets will be frozen immediately.  Once Probate has been obtained, the lawyers gather in the proceeds of all those assets and at this time the lawyer will assist you with completing any forms required.

The lawyer can arrange to pay the funeral expenses and other bills from the Estate, and then deal with any transfer of real estate.

The executors organise handing over gifts such as jewellery or other items to those who were entitled to them under the Will.  If there are any disputes, regarding for example which piece of jewellery goes to which child (if the Will wasn’t specific enough), the Executors help to resolve those disputes.

6.    Wait Six Months (or sometimes longer)

By law the Executor has to hold onto estate assets for six months from the date Probate is granted, and cannot pay out any money to the beneficiaries before this time is up.

The reason for this is in case any claims are made against the Estate, eg: by long lost children, or in case any creditors emerge who are owed money. 

The Executor of the Estate is personally liable for any claims made on the Estate within that six month period, so if beneficiaries want to receive their funds earlier, they can agree to sign an indemnity so that if any claims are made they indemnify the Executor for those.

In addition to this six month period, the Executors need to be aware of the “Executor’s year” within which Executors should endeavour to complete administration and distribution to the beneficiaries. 

Some estates will be complicated and can take longer than this.  This also ties in to the amount of time that those who have been left of out the Will have a right to make a claim against the Estate.  In some cases, where the likelihood of a claim is high, Executors will wait a full year before paying out any funds.

7.    Pay Gifts, and Balance to Beneficiaries

After paying any debts, expenses and specific gifts in the Will, the balance remaining is then paid out to the beneficiaries who are entitled to the balance of the Estate, and the Estate is wound up

Knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and how long you can expect to wait before you receive your inheritance, will hopefully help you rest easy, plan better and avoid the problem that arose above.