How long will it take to unlock estate assets? – A timeline for probates, letters of administration, and reseals

A common complaint we hear is how long it takes for people to receive their inheritance once a friend or family member has died.  

Being remembered in someone’s will is often a bittersweet surprise. But, once you have waited for over a year or more to receive that gift, the experience can begin to feel sour. 

Dealing with an estate from start to finish can vary greatly, and how long it takes depends on how complex the estate is and how many people need to be involved (and how many questions they each might have). Yet, any estate that has assets worth over $15,000 will have probate as part of its process, and it is worth knowing about that probate process as it can take some time.

When someone dies, all of the organisations which hold the assets (such as banks, insurance companies and Land Information New Zealand) lock those assets. A grant of probate is the document that unlocks those assets and allows the executor of the will to access them to complete the administration of the estate by following the instructions in the will.

When the person who died had a will, the application is called a grant of probate – when they did not have a will, it is called a grant of Letters of Administration. When one of these has been granted in a Commonwealth country and needs to be approved by our court for use on assets in New Zealand, it is called a Reseal. 

You are required to make all of these applications to the High Court of New Zealand. It usually takes between 4 to 6 weeks from when the application is put into the court to receive a grant. Sometimes the court can be quite a bit quicker than this (at the moment, for example, they are processing most of these applications in roughly four weeks). Still, we always like to encourage our clients to expect the worst and then, if it is faster, they are in a better position.

If an application is urgent (for example, one of the people entitled to money from the estate is struggling financially or if the estate owns a house that has a hole in the roof which needs estate money to protect and repair the home), the court can be convinced to make an urgent grant if you explain to them why it is required. An urgent grant takes only between 1 to 2 weeks.

The real differences in timing come not from the court process itself but from preparing the application and collecting all of the evidence needed for the court to make the grant.

Grant of Probate

The Courts make a grant of probate when there is a will, so it is reasonably easy to discern who the executors are because they are listed in the will.

Lawyers must prepare an application for the estate, which includes an affidavit from the executors to confirm specific details to the court, such as:

  • The deceased person really has died.
  • The will they are producing is the most recent will that the deceased made
  • they really are the executors listed in the will and,
  • They promise the court that they will carry out the wishes stipulated in the will.

All executors have to sign this affidavit, and their signatures must be witnessed by a lawyer, Notary Public or a Justice of the Peace.

The original will must also be in the presence of the executors when they sign their affidavits. The necessity for original documents to go back and forth can often add a lot of time. Specifically, when waiting on the post, if the executors don’t live close to the lawyer for the estate. If they do live close by, they can pop into the lawyer’s office to sign, and nothing has to go by post. 

Occasionally, the original documents can get lost in the post, and then a completely different application has to be carried out. 

We always recommend sending original documents with tracked services to avoid this problem where possible.

Letters of Administration

This application has all the same issues as a grant of probate in terms of timing, but with the added complication of needing to choose who the executors are because there is no Will that determines this. Executors under letters of administration are called “administrators”, but the role is almost identical.

Essentially, how the administrators are chosen depends on what family members of the deceased person are alive at the time of their death. The government have a prescribed list for who receives what from the estate. Whoever is entitled to the largest part of the estate in the list is designated the estate administrator. 

The tricky part is that you have to prove, one by one, that the various classes of relatives are not alive or in existence to narrow it down to the relatives who are entitled to the largest portion of the estate. If one relative is entitled to the largest portion, they are allowed to be the administrator. If there is more than one relative who receives the same portion, the relative who applies to be the administrator also has to have consents signed by all the other relatives who are entitled to the same portion of the estate as they are.

This adds another whole dimension of complication in making searches of government registries, finding the people who need consent, convincing them to sign consents, and for the original documents to all be created, signed, and posted back to the estate lawyer.

Reseal

A reseal is the easiest of the three applications. The hard work for the grant of probate or letters of administration has already been completed in another country. 

The executors or the administrators don’t have to sign anything for the application for a reseal – this is taken care of by the lawyer making the application. The only original document that needs to be posted is the probate or letters of the administration itself (although this posting time is often quite long because it is always crossing borders).

However, reseals are not typical applications for most lawyers to make, so we recommend using specialists who often do them. Otherwise, this process can be lengthy for an inexperienced lawyer who needs to up-skill themselves to make the application. 

Conclusion

Overall, the application for probate, letters of administration, or reseal is only a part of a long process that can often take 12 months or more from the date that someone died to finish all the jobs in their estate and pay the money the people are entitled to inherit.

However, it often represents a reasonable chunk of that time, and the executors or administrators can do little or nothing with the estate assets until this is granted. Usually, executors and administrators are also required to hold the estate assets and not distribute them to anyone for six months from the date of grant of probate or letters of administration. This timing is a key part of the overall timing of any sizeable estate.

For more information

If you are dealing with an estate where a reseal, probate or letters of administration are required in New Zealand, please contact Jenny Lowe on 04 916 0153 or email jenny.lowe@nzprobatesandreseals.com. Jenny is one of few legal specialists in New Zealand for reseals, probate and letters of administration applications, especially for an international estate with assets in New Zealand. We can make these complex applications simple and painless for you.