Unless you’ve created a proper estate plan, when you die many of your assets must first pass through the court process known as probate before those assets can be distributed to your heirs. Like most court proceedings, probate can be time-consuming, costly, and open to the public, and because of this, avoiding probate—and keeping your family out of court—is a central goal of most estate plans.
During probate, the court supervises a number of different legal actions, all of which are aimed at finalizing your affairs and settling your estate. Although we’ll discuss them more in-depth below, probate typically consists of the following processes:
- Determining the validity of your will (if you have one).
- Appointing an executor or administrator to manage the probate process and settle your estate.
- Locating and valuing all of your assets.
- Notifying & paying your creditors.
- Filing & paying your taxes.
- Distributing your assets to the appropriate beneficiaries.
In most cases, going through all of these steps is a real pain for the people you love. It’s expensive, can take a long time, and be highly inconvenient, and sometimes, even downright messy.
By implementing the right estate planning strategies, however, you can help your loved ones avoid probate all together—or at least make the process extremely simple for them. To spare your family from the time, cost, and stress inherent to probate, here in this two-part series, we’ll first explain how the probate process works and what it would entail for your loved ones, and then we’ll outline the different ways you can avoid probate with wise planning.
When Probate Is Required
As mentioned previously, if you fail to put in place a proper estate plan, your assets typically go through probate before they can be distributed to your heirs. In general, this includes those individuals who have no estate plan at all, those whose estate plan consists of a will alone, and those who have a will that’s deemed invalid by the court.
It’s important to point out that even if you have a will in place, your loved ones will still be required to go through probate upon your death. Therefore, if you want to keep your family out of court and out of conflict when you die, you cannot rely solely on a will, and you’ll need to put in place additional estate planning vehicles, which we will cover in further detail later.
If you die without a will, it’s known as dying intestate, and in such cases, probate is still required to pay your debts and distribute your assets. However, since you haven’t expressed how you wish your estate to be divided among your heirs, your assets will be distributed to your closest living relatives based on our state’s intestate succession laws. These laws typically give priority to spouses, children, and parents, followed by siblings and grandparents, and then more distant relatives. If no living heirs can be found, then your assets go to the state.
Some states allow estates with a relatively low value to bypass probate and use an abbreviated process to settle the estate. For example, Texas law allows estates with a total value of less than $75,000 to skip probate. In those cases, beneficiaries can claim the estate’s assets using simpler legal actions, such as by filing an affidavit or other form.
Additionally, when an individual’s debts exceed the value of their assets, or a person has no assets at all, probate is often not initiated, and the estate is settled using alternative legal processes.
How Probate Works
How probate plays out is largely determined by whether or not you had a valid will in place at the time of death. However, even in cases where no will exists, or the will is deemed invalid, the probate process is quite similar. Indeed, once the court appoints someone to oversee the probate process on your behalf, the process unfolds in a nearly identical manner, regardless if you had a will or not.
1. Authenticating The Validity Of Your Will:
Following your death, your executor is responsible for filing your will and death certificate with the court, and this initiates the probate process. From there, the court must authenticate your will to ensure it was properly created and executed in accordance with state law, and this may involve a court hearing.
Notice of the hearing must be given to all of the beneficiaries named in your will, along with all potential heirs who would stand to inherit under state law in the absence of a will. This hearing gives these individuals the opportunity to contest the validity of your will in order to prevent the document from being admitted to probate.
For example, someone might contest your will on the grounds that it was improperly executed (signed, witnessed, and/or notarized) as required by state law, or someone might claim that you were unduly influenced or coerced to change your will. If such a contest is successful, the court declares your will invalid, which effectively means the document never existed in the first place.
2. Appointing The Executor Or Administrator:
If you created a will, the court must formally appoint the person you named in your will as your executor before they can legally act on your behalf. If you died without a will, the court will appoint someone—typically your closest living relative—to serve in this role, known as your personal representative or administrator.
In some cases, the court might require your executor to post a bond before they can serve. The bond functions as an insurance policy to reimburse the estate in the event the executor makes a serious error during probate that financially damages the estate.
3. Locating & Valuing Your Assets:
Once probate begins, the executor must identify, locate, and take possession of all of your assets, so they can be appraised to determine the total value of your estate. This includes not only those assets listed in your will and other estate planning documents, but also those you may have not included in your estate plan. This is why keeping a regularly updated inventory of your assets is so important.
Any assets the executor is unable to locate will end up in our state’s Department of Unclaimed Property. Across the U.S., there is more than $58 billion (yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’) of assets stuck in state Departments of Unclaimed Property. Fortunately, this is easy to prevent when you work with us. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we will not only help you create a comprehensive asset inventory, we will make sure this inventory stays updated throughout your lifetime.
In the case of real estate, although the executor is not expected to actually move into your home or other residence, he or she is required to ensure that your mortgage, homeowners insurance, and property taxes are paid while probate is ongoing. These and all other debts can be paid from your estate.
Once all of your assets have been located, the executor must determine their value, which is typically done using financial statements and/or appraisals. From there, the combined value of all of your assets is used to estimate the total value of your estate.
4. Notifying & Paying Your Creditors:
To ensure all of your outstanding debts are paid before your assets are distributed, the executor must notify all of your creditors of your death. In most states, any unknown creditors can be notified by publishing a death notice with your local newspaper.
Creditors typically have a limited period of time—usually one year—after being notified to make claims against your estate. The executor can challenge any creditor claims he or she considers invalid, and in turn, the creditor can petition the court to rule on whether the claim must be paid.
From there, valid creditor claims are then paid. The executor will use your estate funds to pay all of your final bills, including any outstanding medical and funeral expenses.
5. Filing & Paying Your Taxes:
In addition to paying all of your outstanding private debts, the executor is also responsible for filing and paying any outstanding taxes you owe to the government at the time of death. This includes personal income and capital-gains taxes, as well as state and federal estate taxes, if your estate is valuable enough to qualify.
That said, the federal estate tax exemption is currently set at $11.7 million for individuals and $23.4 million for married couples, so most families won’t have to worry about estate taxes. And for those who do exceed that threshold, there are several strategies you can use to reduce the size of your estate to avoid these taxes.
Any taxes due are paid from estate funds. In some cases, this may require liquidating assets to raise the needed cash. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we will not only support you during your lifetime to implement tax-saving strategies to minimize your tax bill, but we will also work with your loved ones following your death in the same capacity to ensure the wealth and legacy you’ve built provides the maximum benefit to those you leave behind.
6. Distribution Of Your Remaining Assets:
Once the court confirms all of your debts and taxes have been paid—which typically requires the executor to file an accounting of all transactions he or she engaged in during the probate process—the executor can petition the court for authorization to distribute the remaining assets in your estate to the beneficiaries named in your will, or according to state intestate succession laws, if you didn’t have a will.
Once all assets have been distributed, the executor must file a petition with the court to close probate. If all creditors and taxes have been paid, your assets have been distributed, and there are no other outstanding issues to be addressed, the court will issue an order formally closing the estate and terminating the executor’s appointment.
WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR YOUR FAMILY
Probate court proceedings can take months, and sometimes even years, to complete. In the immediate aftermath of your death, that’s the last thing you likely want your loved ones to have to endure. And the cost of their time and emotional strain are just the start of the potentially devastating consequences your family could face if you don’t plan ahead.
Without easy and immediate access to your assets, your family could face serious financial hardship at a time when they need the most support. Not only that, but to help them navigate the legal proceedings, your loved ones will almost certainly need to hire a lawyer, which can result in hefty attorney’s fees and the real risk of them hiring a lawyer who is uncommunicative, which only creates more stress for them. All of that is on top of the court costs, executor’s compensation, and all of the various other administrative expenses related to probate. In California the average cost of probate ranges from 5-8% of the estate going through probate. By the time all of those costs have been paid, your estate could be totally wiped out, or at the very least, seriously depleted.
Another drawback of probate is the fact that it’s a public process. Whether you have a will or not, all of the proceedings that take place during probate become part of the public record. This means that anyone who’s interested can learn about the contents of your estate, who your beneficiaries are, and what they will inherit, which can set them up as potential targets for scammers and frauds.
Probate also has the potential to create conflict among your loved ones. This is particularly true if you have disinherited someone or plan to leave significantly more money to one relative than the others, in which case, a family member may contest your will. And even if those contests don’t succeed, such court fights will only increase the time, expense, and strife your family has to endure.
HOW TO AVOID PROBATE
Before discussing the more advanced ways you can use estate planning to allow your loved ones to avoid probate, it’s important to point out that not all of your assets will have to go through the probate process—and that’s true even if you don’t have any estate plan at all.
ASSETS THAT DO NOT REQUIRE PROBATE
Certain assets, such as those with beneficiary designations like 401(k)s, IRAs, and the proceeds from life insurance policies, will pass directly to the individuals or organizations you designated as your beneficiary, without the need for any additional planning.
The following are some of the most common assets that use beneficiary designations and therefore, bypass probate:
- Retirement accounts, IRAs, 401(k)s, and pensions
- Life insurance or annuity proceeds
- Payable-on-death (POD) bank accounts
- Transfer-on-death (TOD) property, such as bonds, stocks, vehicles, and real estate
Outside of assets with beneficiary designations, other assets that do not go through probate include assets with a right of survivorship, such as property held in joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety, and community property with the right of survivorship. These assets automatically pass to the surviving co-owner(s) when you die, without the need for probate.
However, it’s critical to note here that if you name your “estate” as the beneficiary of any of these assets, those assets will go through probate before being distributed. The same goes if you overlook a beneficiary designation, or if you die at the same time as a joint property owner—each of those assets will also go through probate, even though they have beneficiary designations.
In addition, these designations give you little to no control over how your assets are distributed, and they can result in negative outcomes you did not intend.
Although there are several different types of assets that automatically bypass probate, the majority of your assets will require slightly more advanced levels of planning to ensure your loved ones can immediately access them, without the need for any court proceedings in the event something happens to you. The primary estate planning tool for this purpose are trusts.
AVOIDING PROBATE WITH A REVOCABLE LIVING TRUST
Trusts are a popular estate planning tool for avoiding probate. Although there are a variety of different types of trust, the most commonly used trust for probate avoidance is a revocable living trust, also called a “living trust.”
A trust is basically a legal agreement between the “grantor” (the person who puts assets into the trust) and the “trustee” (the person who agrees to manage those assets) to hold title to assets for the benefit of the “beneficiary.” With a revocable living trust, this agreement is typically made between you as the grantor and you as the trustee for the benefit of you as the beneficiary. You act as your own trustee during your lifetime, and then you name someone as a “successor trustee” to take over management of the trust when you die or in the event of your incapacity.
It might seem odd to make an agreement with yourself to hold title to assets for yourself in order to benefit yourself. Yet by doing so, you remove those assets from the court’s jurisdiction in the event of your incapacity or when you die. Instead, those assets transfer to your successor trustee, without any court intervention required.
At that point, your successor trustee is responsible for managing the trust assets and eventually distributing them to your beneficiaries, according to the terms you spell out in the trust agreement. This is how a trust avoids probate, saving your family significant time, money, and headache.
THE KEY BENEFITS OF A LIVING TRUST
Unlike a will, if your trust is properly set up and maintained, your loved ones won’t have to go to court to inherit your assets. Instead, your successor trustee can transfer the assets held by the trust to your loved ones upon your death or in the event of your incapacity. And since you can include specific instructions in a trust’s terms for how and when the assets held by the trust are distributed to a beneficiary, a trust can offer greater control over how your assets are distributed compared to a will.
For example, you could stipulate that the assets can only be distributed upon certain life events, such as the completion of college or marriage, or when the beneficiary reaches a certain age. In this way, you can help prevent your beneficiaries from blowing through their inheritance and offer incentives for them to demonstrate responsible behavior. And as long as the assets are held in trust, they’re protected from the beneficiaries’ creditors, lawsuits, and divorce—which is something else wills don’t provide.
Finally, trusts remain private and are not part of the public record. So, with a properly funded trust, the entire process of transferring ownership of your assets can happen privately and on your family’s time.
TRANSFERRING ASSETS INTO A LIVING TRUST
For a trust to function properly, it’s not enough to simply list the assets you want the trust to cover. When you create your trust, you must also transfer the legal title of any assets you want to be held by the trust from your name into the name of the trust. Retitling assets in this way is known as “funding” a trust.
Funding your trust properly is extremely important, because if any assets are not properly funded to the trust, the trust won’t work, and your family will have to go to court in order to take ownership of that property, even if you have a trust. In light of this, it’s critical to properly handle your assets to ensure your trust works as intended.
While many lawyers will create a trust for you, few will ensure your assets are properly inventoried and funded into your trust, and then ensure the inventory of your assets is kept up-to-date as your life and assets change over time. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, I will not only make sure all of your assets are properly titled when you initially create your trust, but we will also ensure that any new assets you acquire over the course of your life are inventoried and properly funded to your trust. This will keep your assets from being lost, as well as prevent your family from being inadvertently forced into court because your plan was never fully completed.
LIVING TRUSTS, TAXES, CREDITORS, & LAWSUITS
When you create a revocable living trust, you are free to change the trust’s terms or even completely terminate the trust at any point during your lifetime. Because you retain control over the assets held by a living trust during your lifetime, those assets are still considered part of your estate for estate tax purposes. Similarly, assets held in a living trust are not protected from your creditors or lawsuits during your lifetime. This is an important and often misunderstood point.
Again, a revocable living trust does not protect your assets from creditors or lawsuits, and it has no impact on your income taxes. The primary benefit of a living trust is to pass your assets to your loved ones without any need for court or government intervention, and to ensure your assets pass in the way you want to the people you want.
LIFE & LEGACY PLANNING: DO RIGHT BY THOSE YOU LOVE MOST
Although a living trust can be an ideal way to pass your wealth and assets to your loved ones, each family’s circumstances are different. This is why I will not create any documents until I know what you actually need and what will be the most affordable solution for you and your family—both now and in the future—based on your family dynamics, assets, and desires.
The best way for you to determine which estate planning strategies are best suited for your situation is to begin the process by scheduling a FREE Family Wealth Planning Session.
As your Personal Family Lawyer® firm, I see estate planning as far more than simply planning for your death and passing on your “estate” and assets to your loved ones—it’s about planning for a life you love and a legacy worth leaving by the choices you make today—and this is why we call our services Life & Legacy Planning. Call today to get started.