Do You Have to Do Probate when Someone Dies?

Probate is a Latin term meaning “to prove.” Legally, a deceased person may not own property, so the moment a person dies, the property they owned while living is in a legal state of limbo. The rightful owners must prove their ownership in court, explains the article “Wills and Probate” from Southlake Style. Probate refers to the legal process that recognizes a person’s death, proves whether or not a valid last will exists and who is entitled to assets the decedent owned while they were living.

The probate court oversees the payment of the decedent’s debts, as well as the distribution of their assets. The court’s role is to facilitate this process and protect the interests of all creditors and beneficiaries of the estate. The process is known as “probate administration.”

Having a last will does not automatically transfer property. The last will must be properly probated first. If there is a last will, the estate is described as “testate.” The last will must contain certain language and have been properly executed by the testator (the decedent) and the witnesses. Every state has its own estate laws. Therefore, to be valid, the last will must follow the rules of the person’s state. A last will that is valid in one state may be invalid in another.

The court must give its approval that the last will is valid and confirm the executor is suited to perform their duties. Texas is one of a few states that allow for independent administration, where the court appoints an administrator who submits an inventory of assets and liabilities. The administration goes on with no need for probate judge’s approval, as long as the last will contains the specific language to qualify.

If there was no last will, the estate is considered to be “intestate” and the laws of the state determine who inherits what assets. The laws rely on the relationship between the decedent and the genetic or bloodline family members. An estranged relative could end up with everything. The estate distribution is more likely to be challenged if there is no last will, causing additional family grief, stress and expenses.

The last will should name an executor or administrator to carry out the terms of the last will. The executor can be a family member or a trusted friend, as long as they are known to be honest and able to manage financial and legal transactions. Administering an estate takes time, depending upon the complexity of the estate and how the person managed the business side of their lives. The executor pays bills, may need to sell a home and also deals with any creditors.

The smart estate plan includes assets that are not transferrable by the last will. These are known as “non-probate” assets and go directly to the heirs, if the beneficiary designation is properly done. They can include life insurance proceeds, pensions, 401(k)s, bank accounts and any asset with a beneficiary designation. If all of the assets in an estate are non-probate assets, assets of the estate are easily and usually quickly distributed. Many people accomplish this through the use of a Living Trust.

Every person’s life is different, and so is their estate plan. Family dynamics, the amount of assets owned and how they are owned will impact how the estate is distributed. Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare for the future.

Reference: Southlake Style (May 17, 2021) “Wills and Probate”

What can a Power of Attorney Do—or Not Do?

Power of attorney is an important tool in estate planning. The recent article “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney” from My Prime Time News, explains how a POA works, what it can and cannot do and how it helps families with loved ones who are incapacitated.

The agent’s authority to powers of attorney (POA) is only effective while the person is living. It ends upon the death of the principal. At that point in time, the executor named in the last will or an administrator named by a court are the only persons legally permitted to act on behalf of the decent.

An incapacitated person may not sign a POA.

Powers of Attorney can be broad or narrow. A person may be granted POA to manage a single transaction, for example, the sale of a home. They may also be named POA to handle all of a person’s financial and legal affairs. In some states, such as Colorado, general language in a POA may not be enough to authorize certain transactions. A POA should be created with an estate planning attorney as part of a strategic plan to manage the principal’s assets. A generic POA could create more problems than it solves.

You can have more than one agent to serve under your POA. If you prefer that two people serve as POA, the POA documents will need to state that requirement.

Banks and financial institutions have not always been compliant with POAs. In some cases, they insist that only their POA forms may be used. This has created problems for many families over the years, when POAs were not created in a timely fashion.

In 2010, Colorado law set penalties for third parties (banks, etc.) that refused to honor current POAs without reasonable cause. A similar law was passed in New York State in 2009. Rules and requirements are different from state to state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to ensure that your POA is valid.

Your POA is effective immediately, once it is executed. A Springing POA becomes effective when the conditions specified in the POA are met. This often includes having a treating physician sign a document attesting to your being incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA that best suits your situation.

If you anticipate needing a trust in the future, you may grant your agent the ability to create a trust in your POA. The language must align with your state’s laws to achieve this.

Your agent is charged with reporting any financial abuse and taking appropriate action to safeguard your best interests. If your agent fails to notify you of abuse or take actions to stop the abuser, they may be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages that could have been avoided.

The agent must never use your property to benefit himself, unless given authority to do so. This gets sticky, if you own property together. You may need additional documents to ensure that the proper authority is granted, if your POA and you are in business together, for example.

Every situation is different, and every state’s laws and requirements are different. It will be worthwhile to meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the documents created will be valid and to perform as desired.

Reference: My Prime-Time News (April 10, 2021) “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney”

What Happens when Homeowner Dies without Will?

When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.

When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.

These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.

One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.

How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?

For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. Barring some huge change of heart among the siblings, this is the only option.

If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, an estate administration lawyer is the sensible choice. The court may name someone, if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries.

A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.

One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.

This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”

What are the Stages of Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. How exactly does the probate process work?

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

How Do You Handle Probate?

While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through a court order. However, the court order requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have had created a will while you were living. Unlike most legal documents (including the Power of Attorney mentioned above), a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local District Court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate proceeding is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets upon court permission.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not prepared correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a fiduciary (executor or administrator) and may have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.

The executor or administrator will create a list of all of the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the executor or administrator’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor. Estate fiduciaries who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The executor or administrator is entitled to a fiduciary fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

Probate ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare proxy.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”