How Does Probate Work?

Probate is a court-directed process to examine the last will and testament, authorize the executor named in the last will and give the “all clear” to the executor to go ahead and carry out all of the directions in the last will. However, it’s not always that simple—and sometimes, it can get extremely complicated.

A probate judge also oversees cases when there is no last will, explains the article “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?” from Yahoo! Finance. If there is no last will, the estate is considered “intestate,” and the court appoints an administrator to manage the estate.

Most probate cases are decided using the laws of the state. The probate judge may also be involved in guardianship and mental competency cases. In some states, the probate court oversees adoption cases instead of a family court. However, the main responsibility of the probate judge is overseeing estates.

Probate includes the process of determining the last will’s validity, ensuring that bills and taxes are paid and property is distributed according to the deceased’s wishes. However, if there is no last will and no family member petitions the court to contest the last will, the probate judge’s involvement in the estate (and the family’s life) becomes far more extensive.

Here’s how it works.

The executor of the estate files the last will with the probate court. The probate court has to be sure there are no objections to the last will, like a possibility that someone may claim that the last will was not knowing and voluntarily made by the decedent. In the most intense cases, the judge may have to declare the need for litigation. However, if there are no objections, the executor is approved. The next step is for the executor to get a tax ID number from the IRS and open an estate bank account.

The executor next notifies all interested parties about the last will. This is done by placing classified ads in local newspapers. All possible heirs must be notified, whether they are mentioned in the last will or not, and if they can be found. Creditors have a specific time period to submit claims against the estate through the probate court.

Inventory of all assets must be done, and a total value assigned to the estate on the date of death. The inventory is filed with the probate court and provided to heirs. This is a lot of work, and the executor must be diligent. It may be necessary to hire professionals to value assets, like real estate. Many people work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the estate is properly valued.

If the last will is contested, the probate judge reviews evidence and hears arguments. The process can take years, depending on the complexity of the estate. The probate judge issues rulings and opinions.

If there is no last will, the judge appoints an administrator of the estate to conduct the duties of the executor as described above. With no last will, the probate judge invokes the law of intestate succession, which in most states, means that the order of inheritance is based on the relationship between the deceased and the next of kin. If there are estranged family members, they may end up inheriting most of the estate, regardless of their relationship with the decedent.

Having a last will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney permits you to make the decisions about your property, spares your family from potentially losing everything you have worked to attain and saves your loved one’s time, money and emotional hardship.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Aug. 31, 2021) “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?”

What Kind of Trust Is Right for You?

Everyone wins when estate planning attorneys, financial advisors and accounting professionals work together on a comprehensive estate plan. Each of these professionals can provide their insights when helping you make decisions in their area. Guiding you to the best possible options tends to happen when everyone is on the same page, says a recent article “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts” from U.S. News & World Report.

What is a trust and what do trusts accomplish? Trusts are not just for the wealthy. Many families use trusts to serve different goals, from controlling distributions of assets over generations to protecting family wealth from estate and inheritance taxes.

There are two basic kinds of trust. There are also many specialized trusts in each of the two categories: the revocable trust and the irrevocable trust. The first can be revoked or changed by the trust’s creator, known as the “grantor.” The second is difficult and in some instances and impossible to change, without the complete consent of the trust’s beneficiaries.

There are pros and cons for each type of trust.

Let’s start with the revocable trust, which is also referred to as a living trust. The grantor can make changes to the trust at any time, from removing assets or beneficiaries to shutting down the trust entirely. When the grantor dies, the trust becomes irrevocable. Revocable trusts are often used to pass assets to adult children, with a trustee named to manage the trust’s assets until the trust documents direct the trustee to distribute assets. Some people use a revocable trust to prevent their children from accessing wealth too early in their lives, or to protect assets from spendthrift children with creditor problems.

Irrevocable trusts are just as they sound: they can’t be amended once established. The terms of the trust cannot be changed, and the grantor gives up any control or legal right to the assets, which are owned by the trust.

Giving up control comes with the benefit that assets placed in the trust are no longer part of the grantor’s estate and are not subject to estate taxes. Creditors, including nursing homes and Medicaid, are also prevented from accessing assets in an irrevocable trust.

Irrevocable trusts were once used by people in high-risk professions to protect their assets from lawsuits. Irrevocable trusts are used to divest assets from estates, so people can become eligible for Medicaid or veteran benefits.

The revocable trust protects the grantor’s wishes, if the grantor becomes incapacitated. It also avoids probate, since the trust becomes irrevocable upon death and assets are outside of the probated estate. The revocable trust may include qualified assets, like IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s.

However, there are drawbacks. The revocable trust does not provide tax benefits or creditor protection while the grantor is living.

Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation, and working with your financial advisor and accountant, will be able to create the plan that minimizes taxes and maximizes wealth transfers for your heirs.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 26, 2021) “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts”

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

A person with Power of Attorney for their parents can’t actually “add” the POA to their bank accounts. However, they may change bank accounts to be jointly owned. There are some pros and cons of doing this, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.

As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account passes to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

Does Your Estate Have to Go Through Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process intended to ensure the validity of a lasts will and to protect the distribution of assets after a person has died. If there is no last will, probate still takes place, according to the article “Probate—Courts protecting you after death” from Pauls Valley Democrat.

Every estate that owns property must be probated, unless the title or ownership of the property has been transferred before the person died by gift, if the property is owned jointly with another person, or if it passes by direct beneficiary designation. If a person died without a last will, probate still takes place, but the guidelines used are those of the state law where the person died.

In all cases, it’s better to have a last will and to decide for yourself how you want your assets distributed. For all you know, your state law may give everything you own to an estranged third cousin and her children, who are perfect strangers to you.

If you don’t have a last will, which is referred to as dying “intestate,” the court decides who is going to serve as your administrator. This person will be in charge of distributing all of your worldly goods and taking care of the business part of settling your estate, like paying taxes, selling your home, etc. Without a last will, the court picks a person, and it might not be the person you would have wanted.

Here are the basic steps in probating an estate, once the probate petition is filed:

Initial hearing. This is where the court affirms its jurisdiction and identifies all known heirs, and the personal representative is identified.

Letters Testamentary. This document is issued to the personal representative. This is a judge signed document proving to others, like banks and investment custodians, that the personal representative is legally permitted to handle your property and act on behalf of your estate. It’s similar to a Power of Attorney.

Probate. This court process collects, identifies, and accounts for all assets of a decedent. The representative must be mindful to document any money going in and out of the estate during the administrative process.

Written notice must be given to all and any known heirs. This can lead to relatives and others believing they have a claim on your estate and to then challenge the provisions of your last will with the court.

Notice is also provided to creditors, who have at least 60 days after notice is provided to make a claim on the estate. This timeframe varies by jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, these notices are published in local newspapers, once a week for two or more consecutive weeks. Once they receive fair notice, general creditors who fail to file a claim lose their right to ever file a claim on the estate.

An estate plan is created with an eye to minimizing taxes, maximizing privacy for the family and heirs, and transferring ownership of assets with as little red tape as possible. Failing to properly plan can lead to a probate taking months, and in some cases, years.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (July 1, 2021) “Probate—Courts protecting you after death”

How Do I Stop Heirs from Foolishly Wasting Inheritance?
Conceptual image expressing the value of money decreasing or a metaphor for throwing your money away. A trashcan is full of wadded up $100 and $50 bills. Another $100 is in motion toward the trashcan. A small amount of grain has been added to the background in post processing.

How Do I Stop Heirs from Foolishly Wasting Inheritance?

This is a problem solved by a trust—a “spendthrift” trust. With a spendthrift provision in a testamentary trust created under a will or an inheritance trust created under a revocable living trust, the trustee makes all decisions about distributions. This can be an effective means of controlling the flow of money.

A spendthrift trust, according to the article “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust” from Record Courier, is created for the benefit and protection of a financially irresponsible person.

For a spendthrift trust, it may be better not to choose a family member or trusted friend to serve as the trustee. Such person might not live long enough or have the capacity to serve as trustee for as long as required, especially if the heir is a young adult. Conflicts among family members are common, when money is involved. An independent and well-established trust company or bank may be a better choice as a trustee. Large estates often go this route, since their services can be expensive. However, some retail banks do have a private wealth division. All options need to be explored.

Another benefit to a spendthrift trust—funds are protected against current or future creditors of the beneficiary. Let’s say a parent wants to leave money to a child, but knows the child has credit card debt already. Unless they are co-signers, the parent and their estate do not have a duty to pay an adult child’s debts. The spendthrift trust will not be accessible to the credit card company.

It is difficult to set up a spendthrift trust to protect one’s own money from creditors. This is something that must be approached only with an experienced estate planning attorney. This is because the rules are complex and there are significant limitations. If you wanted to create a spendthrift trust for yourself, you would have to completely give over control of assets to the trustee. There is no way to predict whether a court will consider the person to have relinquished enough control to make the trust valid.

This type of spendthrift trust may not be created with an intent to defraud, delay or hinder creditors. Doing so may make the trust invalid and any possible protection will be lost.

A spendthrift provision in a will is a clause used to protect a beneficiary from a creditor attaching prior debts against the beneficiary’s future inheritance. This means that the creditor may not force an heir or the estate’s executor to pay the beneficiary’s inheritance to the creditor, instead of the beneficiary. It also prevents the beneficiary from procuring a debt based on a future inheritance.

It is important to be aware that a spendthrift provision in a will or a spendthrift trust has limitations. The assets are only protected when they are in the trust or in the estate. Once a distribution is received, creditors can seek payment from the assets owned by the beneficiary.

Another qualifying factor: the spendthrift provision in the will must prevent both the voluntary and involuntary transfer of a beneficiary’s interest. The beneficiary may not transfer their interest to someone else.

The spendthrift trust and clause are mainly intended to protect a beneficiary’s interests from present and future creditors. They are not valid if their intent is to defraud others and may not be created to avoid paying any IRS debts.

Reference: Record Courier (July 10, 2021) “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust”

Do You have to Go through Probate when Someone Dies?

Probate involves assets, debts and distribution. The administration of a probate estate involves gathering all assets owned by the decedent, all claims owed to the decedent and the payments of all liabilities owed by the decedent or the estate of the decedent and the distribution of remaining assets to beneficiaries. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is, according to the article “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know” from The Dallas Morning News.

The admission of a decedent’s will to probate may be challenged for up to two years from the date it was admitted to probate. Many people dismiss this concern, because they believe they have done everything they could to avoid probate, from assigning beneficiary designations to creating trusts. Those are necessary steps in estate planning, but there are some possibilities that executors and beneficiaries need to know.

Any creditor can open a probate estate and sue to pull assets back into the estate. A disappointed heir can sue the executor/administrator and claim that designations and transfers were made when the decedent was incapacitated, unduly influenced or the victim of fraud.

It’s very important that the administrator handles estate matters with meticulous attention to detail, documenting every transaction, maintaining scrupulous records and steering clear of anything that might even appear to be self-dealing. The administrator has a fiduciary duty to keep the beneficiaries of the estate reasonably informed of the process, act promptly and diligently administer and settle the estate.

The administrator must also be in a position to account for all revenue received, money spent and assets sold. The estate’s property must not be mixed in any way with the administrator’s own property or funds or business interests.

The administrator may not engage in any self-dealing. No matter how easily it may be to justify making a transaction, buying any of the estate’s assets for their own benefit or using their own accounts to temporarily hold money, is not permitted.

The administrator must obtain a separate tax identification number from the IRS, known as an EIN, for the probate estate. This is the identification number used to open an estate bank account to hold the estate’s cash and any investment grade assets. The account has to be properly named, on behalf of the probate estate. Anything that is cash must pass through the estate account, and every single receipt and disbursement should be documented. There’s no room for fuzzy accounting in an estate administration, as any estate planning lawyer will advise.

Distributions don’t get made, until all creditors are paid. This may not win the administrator any popularity contests, but it is required. No creditors are paid until the taxes are paid—the last year’s taxes for the last year the decedent was alive, and the estate taxes. The administrator may be held personally liable, if money is paid out to creditors or beneficiaries and there’s not enough money in the estate to pay taxes.

If the estate contains multiple properties in different states, probate must be done in all of those different states. If it is a large complex estate, an estate planning attorney will be a valuable resource in helping to avoid pitfalls, minor or major.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (May 16, 2021) “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”

Should a Husband and Wife have Separate Trusts?

The decision about separate or joint trusts is not as straightforward as you might think. Sometimes, there is an obvious need to keep things separate, according to the recent article “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples” from Kiplinger. However, it is not always the case.

A revocable living trust is a popular way to pass assets to heirs. Assets titled in a revocable living trust don’t go through probate and information about the trust remains private. It is also a good way to plan for incapacity, avoid or reduce the likelihood of a death tax and make sure the right people inherit the trust.

There are advantages to Separate Trusts:

They offer better protection from creditors. When the first spouse dies, the deceased spouse’s trust becomes irrevocable, which makes it far more difficult for creditors to access, while the surviving spouse can still access funds.

If assets are going to non-spouse heirs, separate is better. If one spouse has children from a previous marriage and wants to provide for their spouse and their children, a qualified terminable interest property trust allows assets to be left for the surviving spouse, while the balance of funds are held in trust until the surviving spouse’s death. Then the funds are paid to the children from the previous marriage.

Reducing or eliminating the death tax with separate trusts. Unless the couple has an estate valued at more than $23.16 million in 2020 (or $23.4 million in 2021), they won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. However, there are still a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, with state estate taxes and half-dozen states with inheritance taxes. These estate tax exemptions are considerably lower than the federal exemption, and heirs could get stuck with the bill. Separate trusts as part of a credit shelter trust would let the couple double their estate tax exemption.

When is a Joint Trust Better?

If there are no creditor issues, both spouses want all assets to go to the surviving spouse and state estate tax and/or inheritance taxes aren’t an issue, then a joint trust could work better because:

Joint trusts are easier to fund and maintain. There is no worrying about having to equalize the trusts, or consider which one should be funded first, etc.

There is less work at tax time. The joint trust doesn’t become irrevocable, until both spouses have passed. Therefore, there is no need to file an extra trust tax return. With separate trusts, when the first spouse dies, their trust becomes irrevocable and a separate tax return must be filed every year.

Joint trusts are not subject to higher trust tax brackets, because they do not become irrevocable until the first spouse dies. However, any investment or interest income generated in an account titled in a deceased spouse’s trust, now irrevocable, will be subject to trust tax brackets. This will trigger higher taxes for the surviving spouse, if the income is not withdrawn by December 31 of each year.

In a joint trust, after the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has complete control of the assets. When separate trusts are used, the deceased spouses’ trust becomes irrevocable and the surviving spouse has limited control over assets.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you determine which is best for your situation. This is a complex topic, and this is just a brief introduction.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 20, 2020) “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples”

How Can You Disinherit Someone and Be Sure it Sticks?

Let’s say you want to leave everything you own to your children, but you can’t stand and don’t trust their spouses. That might make you want to delay making an estate plan, because it’s a hard thing to come to terms with, says a recent article “Dealing with disinheritance, spouses” from the Times Herald-Record. There are options, but make the right choice, or your estate could face challenges.

Some people choose to leave nothing at all for their child in the will, so that if there is a divorce or if the child dies, their assets won’t end up in the daughter or son-in-law’s pocket. For some parents, particularly those who are estranged from their children, this can create more problems than it solves.

Disinheriting a child with a will is not always a good idea. If you die with assets in your name only, they go through the court proceeding called probate, when the will is used to guide asset distribution. The law requires that all children, even disinherited ones, are notified that you have died, and that probate is going to occur. The disinherited child can object to the provisions in the will, which can lead to a will contest. Most families engaged in litigation over a will become estranged—even those that weren’t beforehand. The cost of litigation will also take a bite out of the value of your estate.

A common tactic is to leave a small amount of money to the disinherited child in the will and add a no-contest clause in the will. The no-contest clause expressly states that anyone who contests the will loses any right to their inheritance. Here is the problem: the disgruntled child may still object, despite the no contest clause, and invalidate the will by claiming undue influence or incapacity or that the will was not executed properly. If their claims are valid, then they’ll have great satisfaction of undoing your planning.

How can you disinherit a child, and be sure that your plan is going to stand up to challenge?

A trust is better in this case than a will. Not only do trusts avoid probate, but (unless state law requires otherwise at death) the children do not receive notice of the creation of a trust. An inheritance trust, where you leave money to your child, names a trustee to be in charge of the trust and the child is the only beneficiary of the trust. The child might be a co-trustee, but they do not have complete control over the trust. The spouse has no control over the inheritance, and you can also name what happens to the assets in the trust, if the child dies.

This kind of planning is called “controlling from the grave,” but it’s better than not knowing if your child will be able to protect their inheritance from a divorce or from creditors.

With a national divorce rate around fifty percent, it’s hard to tell if the in-law you welcome with an open heart, will one day become a predatory enemy in the future, even after you are gone. The use of trusts can ensure that assets remain in the bloodline and protect your hard work from divorces, lawsuits, creditors and other unexpected events.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (June 6, 2020) “Dealing with disinheritance, spouses”