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”

Does a Beneficiary on a Bank Account Override a Will?

You’ve named beneficiaries to accounts many times already, when you opened an IRA, bought an insurance annuity, a life insurance policy, started an investment account, signed up for a pension or bought shares in a mutual fund. These are the accounts that come to mind when people think about beneficiary designations. However, according to a recent article in Forbes titled “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?,” they are not the only financial instruments with beneficiary designations.

When you open a bank account, most retail banks don’t ask you to name a beneficiary, but it’s not because you can’t. If the bank allows beneficiaries on their accounts, it’s usually a pretty simple process. In most cases, you’ll be asked to fill out a form or go through the bank’s process online.

Banks don’t push for beneficiary accounts because they are not required to do so. However, this is a smart move and can be a helpful part of your estate plan. The biggest benefit: funds in the account will be distributed directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They won’t have to go through probate and won’t be part of your estate. Otherwise, whatever assets you keep in your bank accounts will be counted as part of your estate and subject to probate.

Probate is a court process to validate the will and the named executor, supervising the distribution of assets from your estate. In some cases, it can be complicated, take months to complete and depending on the size of your estate, be expensive. If the money in your bank accounts does not go to a beneficiary, it can be used to pay off estate debts instead of going straight to a beneficiary.

For married people, bank account funds are treated differently. Half of the balance goes to your spouse upon death, the rest goes through probate.

Naming a beneficiary is a better alternative. The beneficiary may collect the money immediately. They’ll need to go to the bank with an original or certified copy of a death certificate, required identification (usually a driver’s license) and the money is transferred to them.

If you are married and don’t live in a community property estate, a surviving spouse may be able to dispute the terms of a beneficiary arrangement, but that will take time.

Another means of transferring assets in a bank account is to change your accounts to POD, or Payable On Death accounts. There are other names: In Trust For (ITF), Totten Trust or Transfer on Death (TOD). The named beneficiary is referred to as the POD beneficiary.

There is considerable flexibility when naming a POD beneficiary. It may be a living person, or it can be an organization, including a nonprofit charity or other trusts. You are not allowed to name a non-living legal entity, like a corporation, limited liability company (LLC) or partnership.

Beneficiary designations override wills, so if you forget to change them, the person named will still receive the money, even if that was not your intent. You should review beneficiaries for all of your accounts every year or so. Divorce, death, marriages, births and any other lifetime events are also reasons to check on beneficiary designations.

Reference: Forbes (July 9, 2021) “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?”

How to Protect Digital Property

When people built wealth, assets were usually tangible: real estate, investments, cash, or jewelry. However, the last year has seen a huge jump in digital assets, which includes cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Combine this growing asset class with the coming biggest wealth transfer in history, says the article “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?” from Tech Crunch, and the problems of inheriting assets will take more than a complete search of the family attic.

One survey found only one in four consumers have someone in their life who knows the details of their digital assets, from the location of the online accounts to passwords. However, digital assets that require two factor authentication or biometrics to gain access may make even this information useless.

There are many reports about people who purchased digital assets like Bitcoin and then lost their passwords or threw away their computers. More than $250 million in client assets vanished when a cryptocurrency exchange founder died and private keys to these accounts could not be found.

Digital assets need to be a part of anyone’s estate plan. A last will and testament is used to dictate how assets are to be distributed. If there is no will, the state’s estate law will distribute assets. A complete list of accounts and assets should not be part of a will, since it becomes a public document when it goes through probate. However, a complete list of assets and accounts needs to be prepared and shared with a trusted person.

Even traditional assets, like bank accounts and investment accounts, are lost when no one knows of their existence. If a family or executor doesn’t know about accounts, and if there are no paper statements mailed to the decedent’s home, it’s not likely that the assets will be found.

Things get more complicated with digital assets. By their nature, digital assets are decentralized.  This is part of their attraction for many people. Knowing that the accounts or digital property exists is only part one. Knowing how to access them after death is difficult. Account names, private keys to digital assets and passwords need to be gathered and protected. Directives or directions for what you want to happen to the accounts after you die need to be created, but not every platform has policies to do this.

Password sharing is explicitly prohibited by most website and app owners. Privacy laws also prohibit using someone else’s password, which is technically “account holder impersonation.” Digital accounts that require two factor authentication or use biometrics, like facial recognition, make it impossible for an executor to gain access to the data.

Some platforms have created a means of identifying a person who may be in charge of your digital assets, including Facebook and more recently, LinkedIn. Some exchanges, like Ethereum, have procedures for death-management. Some will require a copy of the will as part of their process to release funds to an estate, so you will need to name the asset (although not the account number).

A digital wallet can be used to store access information for digital assets, if the family is reasonably comfortable using one. A complete list of assets should include tangible and digital assets. It needs to be updated annually or whenever you add new assets.

Reference: Tech Crunch (April 5, 2021) “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?”