There is no deadline after a person dies to file probate. But various bad things can happen when there is a long delay in filing probate if the assets of the dead person are not protected.

What Happens if the Person Who Owns a House Dies and No One Files for Probate?

First, ownership of a house can be transferred upon death without a probate if the house was owned by a trust, was in joint tenancy, or there was a type of deed which transfers to the property to a designated beneficiary upon death. But let’s assume the house was owned by a single person and none of the above applies. A variety of things can happen this situation.

  • One possibility is that the County Public Administrator, learning of the owner’s death, may try and contact the owner’s heirs and if they cannot be located or are uninterested in doing anything the County Public Administrator may hire private counsel to probate the estate. The word “may” is in italics because the County Public Administrator is more likely to get involved if the owner’s dead body is discovered in the house because this gets other government officials involved. On the other hand, if the owner dies outside the house, the death may not come to the attention of the Public Administrator. If the Public Administrator hires private counsel to initiate a probate and the heir cannot be located, the sale proceeds, less expenses, will be turned over to the Unclaimed Property Division of the State Treasurer. More about this later.
  • Another possibility is that a realtor, unrelated to the dead person, looking for a property to sell will initiate a probate. This is possible because NRS 139.040(1) lists who has the highest priority to be Administrator (in the absence of a Will) and the last category, sub-section (j), lists “any person or persons legally qualified.” Typically the opportunistic realtor won’t apply to be the Administrator until sometime after the person has died, because a relative of the dead person could go into court and be appointed over the busy body realtor. But, if say, a year has gone by and no one has filed a probate or a Will, an opportunistic realtor may initiate a probate.
  • Another possibility is that squatters will move into an unoccupied house and destroy or damage it. In most of the Las Vegas area, the local police, Metro, will not remove squatters because someone calls up and says, “My dad died and squatters are in the house.” Instead, Metro will say, “That is a civil matter; get an eviction order in municipal court.”
  • In the very worse case—and we have seen this once in 15 years of probate practice—a vacant house is sold by a scammer who forges the dead owner’s signature on a deed. To try to prevent such frauds from taking place Nevada law requires that when a personal representative (Executor or Administrator) is appointed, the Letters Testamentary or the Letters of Administration be filed with the County Recorder so any good faith purchaser is put on notice that the owner has died and a court proceeding has been begun to determine the new ownership. At Reed & Mansfield in Clark County where it is now taking 3-4 month to get a personal representative appointed, we are now filing a Notice of Death of the Owner as soon as we start a probate case with real estate in Clark County.

However, there are other situations in which delaying doing a probate for years will not turn out badly with respect to a house. Suppose Jack and Jill, husband and wife live in a house owned solely by Jack. Jack dies. If Jill continues to live there and pay the taxes and the mortgage and the insurance, probably nothing bad will happen if she lets this situation go on for years. The only tricky issue might be that if the house burned down, the insurance company might try to deny coverage on the grounds the house was insured in Jack’s name, not Jill’s. But, suppose Jill decides to move out and use the house as a rental w/o filing probate to get it into her name. If she needs to evict a tenant or even a squatter she may not be able to get a court order because she is not the owner. Also, in this situation, if the house was destroyed by fire, the insurance company would likely be more aggressive in denying a claim.


What Happens if a Person Dies Leaving Financial Accounts and No One Files for Probate?

Financial accounts can be held jointly so that if one owner dies, the other owner automatically owns the account. Likewise, financial accounts can list one or more payable on death beneficiaries. But some financial accounts are only held in the name of one person and do NOT list a payable on death beneficiary.

A brokerage like Charles Schwab or bank like Wells Fargo is only going to hold a person’s assets for a certain time after the person has died or a certain time after they can no longer communicate with the person. What this time period is will vary with the institution. But at a certain point the bank or brokerage will turn the person’s money, over to the state treasurer’s Unclaimed Property Division. If the money has been sitting, for example, with the Nevada Treasurer’s Unclaimed Property Division for a couple of years it is not a problem when the probate process is started. At the present time the Nevada Treasurer’s Unclaimed Property Division holds close to a billion dollars of assets. Eventually assets held in the Unclaimed Property Division will escheat to the state in which case it will be complicated for heirs to recover and after a certain time period the assets will not be recoverable. In 15 years of probate practice at Reed & Mansfield, we have had only one case where funds escheated to the State of Nevada and we successfully filed suit to recover the assets.

There are a class of people who try to make money as “probate researchers.” Money held by the Unclaimed Property Division is catalogued in a publicly available data base by name of the owner, usually deceased. Probate researchers contact potential heirs and say, for example, “You have a relative who died and has money which you have an interest in. If you sign a contract giving me X% of the money, I will get it for you.” Sometimes this just prompts the relative to do digging on their own to avoid the probate researcher’s fee. Other times they sign on with the probate researcher.