- Proving in court that a deceased person’s will is valid (usually a routine matter)
- Identifying and inventorying the deceased person’s property
- Having the property appraised
- Paying debts and taxes, and
- Distributing the remaining property as the will directs
Typically, probate involves paperwork and court appearances by lawyers. The lawyers and court fees are paid from estate property, which would otherwise go to the people who inherit the deceased person’s property. The laws of each state vary, so it is a good idea to consult Turner Law Firm, PLLC to determine whether a probate proceeding is necessary, whether the fiduciary must be bonded (a requirement that is often waived in the will) and what reports must be prepared.
Your executor must find, secure, and manage your assets during the probate process, which commonly takes a few months to a year. Depending on the contents of your will, and on the amount of your debts, the executor may have to decide whether or not to sell your real estate, securities, or other property. For example, if your will makes a number of cash bequests but your estate consists mostly of valuable artwork, your collection might have to be appraised and sold to produce cash. Or, if you have many outstanding debts, your executor might have to sell some of your property to pay them.
In most states, immediate family members may ask the court to release short-term support funds while the probate proceedings lumber on. Then, eventually, the court will grant your executor permission to pay your debts and taxes and divide the rest among the people or organizations named in your will. Finally, your property will be transferred to its new owners.
In planning your estate, more importantly than minimizing probate is minimizing the real issues that can make probate difficult, such as lawsuits by heirs.
Whether to spend your time and effort planning to avoid probate depends on a number of factors, most notably your age, your health, and your wealth. If you’re young and in good health, adopting a complex probate-avoidance plan now may mean you’ll have to re-do it as your life situation changes. And if you have very little property, you might not want to spend your time planning to avoid probate because your property may qualify for your state’s simplified probate procedure.
But if you’re in your 50s or older, in ill health, or own a significant amount of property, you’ll probably want to do some planning to avoid probate.
While it is true that the property passing under the terms of a living trust upon your death will “avoid probate,” it should be noted that there may or may not be actual value in that result. Many states have expedited or simplified court proceedings that are efficient and inexpensive for small or simple estates. A properly drafted will in many states can eliminate some of the steps otherwise required in the probate proceedings. In addition, much of the delay and red tape customarily associated with probate is a result of tax laws and tax filing requirements, which cannot be eliminated through a living trust and the avoidance of probate.
Finally, a living trust can almost never totally avoid probate, and a simple will is needed to “pour over” to the trust any property that has not been transferred to the trust during your lifetime.
Property that passes at death through a revocable living trust must be transferred to the trust, administered by a trustee who may or may not charge fees, and then transferred out of the trust to the beneficiaries. There may be other costs, such as real estate transfer taxes or fees, depending upon the jurisdiction. The costs associated with these steps and the costs associated with tax filings are often ignored by living trust marketers. A comparison of the costs of probate and those of a living trust should be made on a case by case basis.
Living trusts, in fact, have great value as part of estate planning, but not necessarily to avoid probate. A living trust, if properly prepared and administered, can be a very effective tool to manage assets in the event of illness, disability or the effects of aging. In light of the aging population, the use of living trusts to minimize the risk of elder financial abuse and address similar issues, should be an important consideration in an estate plan. Let Turner Law Firm, PLLC assist you in your plans.
If no formal probate proceeding is necessary, the court does not appoint an estate administrator. Instead, a close relative or friend serves as an informal estate representative. Normally, families and friends choose this person, and it is not uncommon for several people to share the responsibilities of paying debts, filing a final income tax return and distributing property to the people who are supposed to get it.
As described above, the probate process begins with the filing of the petition with the probate court to either (1) admit the will to probate and appoint the executor or (2) if there is no will, appoint an administrator of the estate. Generally, notice of the court hearing regarding the petition must be provided to all of the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. If an heir or beneficiary objects to the petition, they have the opportunity to do so in court. Also, generally, notice of the hearing is published in a local newspaper. This is to attempt to notify others, such as unknown creditors of the decedent, of the beginning of the proceeding.
2. Following appointment by the court, the personal representative must give notice to all known creditors of the estate and take an inventory of the estate property.
The personal representative then gives written notice to all creditors of the estate based upon state law; any creditor who wishes to make a claim on assets of the estate must do so within a limited period of time (which also varies by state).
An inventory of all of decedent’s probate property, including real property, stocks, bonds, business interests, among other assets, is taken. In some states, a court appointed appraiser values the assets. When necessary, an independent appraiser is hired by the estate to appraise non-cash assets.
3. All estate and funeral expenses, debts and taxes must be paid from the estate.
The personal representative must determine which creditor’s claims are legitimate and pay those and other final bills from the estate. In some instances, the personal representative is permitted to sell estate assets to satisfy the decedent’s obligations.
4. Legal title in property is transferred according to the will or under the laws of intestacy (if the decedent did not have a will).
Following the waiting period to allow creditors to file claims against the estate, and all approved claims and bills are paid, generally, the personal representative petitions the court for the authority to transfer the remaining assets to beneficiaries as directed in the decedent’s last will and testament or, if there is no will, according to state intestate succession laws. If the will calls for the creation of a trust for the benefit of a minor, spouse or incapacitated family member, money is then transferred to the trustee. Unless the beneficiaries of the estate waive the requirement as allowed under some state laws, the petition may include an accounting of how the assets were managed during the probate process. Once the petition is granted, the personal representative may draw up new deeds for property, transfer stock, liquidate assets and transfer property to the appropriate recipients.
In short, a properly drafted will, updated regularly to account for life changes, organized records of debts, personal property and other assets simplifies the probate process. The easier it is for your personal representative to trace your steps after you’re gone, the easier the process. Turner Law Firm, PLLC can guide you through a thorough process based upon your situation to set up the best plan for you and future generations.