How Do I Avoid Probate?

Probate can tie up the estate for months and be an added expense. Some states have a streamlined process for less valuable estates, but probate still has delays, extra expense and work for the estate administrator. A probated estate is also a public record anyone can review.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust” says that avoiding probate often is a big estate planning goal. You can structure the estate so that all or most of it passes to your loved ones without this process.

A living trust is the most well-known way to avoid probate. However, retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, avoid probate. The beneficiary designation on file with the account administrator or trustee determines who inherits them. Likewise, life insurance benefits and annuities are distributed to the beneficiaries named in the contract.

Joint accounts and joint title are ways to avoid probate. Married couples can own real estate or financial accounts through joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The surviving spouse automatically takes full title after the other spouse passes away. Non-spouses also can establish joint title, like when a senior creates a joint account with an adult child at a financial institution. The child will automatically inherit the account when the parent passes away without probate. If the parent cannot manage his or her affairs at some point, the child can manage the finances without the need for a power of attorney.

Note that all joint owners have equal rights to the property. A joint owner can take withdrawals without the consent of the other. Once joint title is established you cannot sell, give or dispose of the property without the consent of the other joint owner.

A transfer on death provision (TOD) is another vehicle to avoid probate. You might come across the traditional term Totten trust, which is another name for a TOD or POD account (but there is no trust involved). After the original owner passes away, the TOD account is transferred to the beneficiary or changed to his or her name, once the financial institution gets the death certificate.

You can name multiple beneficiaries and specify the percentage of the account each will inherit. However, beneficiaries under a TOD have no rights in or access to the account while the owner is alive.

Reference: Forbes (March 28, 2022) “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust”

Is Estate Planning Affected by Property in Two States?

Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article titled “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan says that if a person owns real estate or other tangible property (like a boat) in another state, they should think about creating a trust that can hold all their real estate. You don’t need one for each state. You can assign or deed their property to the trust, no matter where the property is located.

Some inherited assets require taxes be paid by the inheritors. Those taxes are determined by the laws of the state in which the asset is located.

A big mistake that people frequently make is not creating a trust. When a person fails to do this, their assets will go to probate. Some other common errors include improperly titling the property in their trust or failing to fund the trust. When those things occur, ancillary probate is required.  This means a probate estate needs to be opened in the other state. As a result, there may be two probate estates going on in two different states, which can mean twice the work and expense, as well as twice the stress.

Having two estates going through probate simultaneously in two different states can delay the time it takes to close the probate estate.

There are some other options besides using a trust to avoid filing an ancillary estate. Most states let an estate holder file a “transfer on death affidavit,” also known as a “transfer on death deed” or “beneficiary deed” when the asset is real estate. This permits property to go directly to a beneficiary without needing to go through probate.

A real estate owner may also avoid probate by appointing a co-owner with survivorship rights on the deed. Do not attempt this without consulting an attorney.

If you have real estate, like a second home, in another state (and) you die owning that individually, you’re going to have to probate that in the state where it’s located. It is usually best to avoid probate in multiple jurisdictions, and also to avoid probate altogether.

A co-owner with survivorship is an option for avoiding probate. If there’s no surviving spouse, or after the first one dies, you could transfer the estate to their revocable trust.

Each state has different requirements. If you’re going to move to another state or have property in another state, you should consult with a local estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (March 21, 2022) “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan”

How to Protect Valuable Assets in Estate Planning

If you fail to take the necessary measures, you can lose your assets and property, which might cause financial challenges when you will not be working in retirement.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “How to Legally Protect Your Assets” says there are different strategies you can use to protect your personal assets.

This will help you to prepare for any eventuality. Let’s look at some of them:

A Family Trust. This may be one of the best strategies to protect your personal assets. A trust will help protect your assets when you lose all your money. A family trust can also provide tax benefits to family members in lower tax brackets. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney before setting up the trust to make the right decisions.

Start a Company. This may be an alternative to setting up a family trust, since your property will be more secure than when operating a sole proprietorship or a partnership business. This gives you a more secure future, even when you face financial challenges. However, there are many legalities in starting a company, so talk to an attorney.

Register Your Most Valuable Assets in the Name of the Low-risk Spouse. This tactic will make it difficult for a trustee or liquidator to gain access to the property in case of bankruptcy. However, ask an attorney to help you to structure the purchase to make certain that the low-risk partner’s name appears on the legal documents. An experienced estate planning attorney can also help you access benefits, such as Social Security and Medicaid.

These laws keep changing. You might miss an opportunity of getting long-term care planning, if you keep postponing a review with an experienced estate planning attorney.

As you spend your hard-earned cash, take some time to learn how to protect what you buy.  You should also use the legal strategies above to keep your property secure.

Reference: Legal Reader Jan. 26, 2022) “How to Legally Protect Your Assets” 

Should I Place My Home in a Trust?

Just like you protect your finances from debt or use home security to protect your belongings, estate planning with a living trust can be a way to provide your loved ones with a legacy and inheritance, says Yahoo Life’s recent article entitled “Why You Should Put Your House in a Living Trust.”

It’s important to know what will happen to your house, if you and/or a co-owner were to die. Even if your will gives your house to your children, the transfer can be delayed due to the rules of probate law. If you’re in an LGBTQ+ family or have special needs, there are also frequently special circumstances to consider and for which to plan when crafting your estate plan.

Similar to a will, a living trust is a legal document that can be a vital tool for planning and distributing your assets to your heirs. A living trust is active when it’s created and assigns a trustee to manage certain assets—such as your house—on behalf of the future beneficiary.

A trust can be either revocable or irrevocable. Revocable means you can modify the terms or control of the assets in the trust at any time. While this gives you flexibility, the trust assets will count as part of your estate when you die. An irrevocable trust allows your assets to no longer be counted as part of your estate. However, you have little control of the trust and the assets in it. The type of trust you use depends on your circumstances.

A will only becomes active after you die and must undergo probate. Trusts don’t need to go through probate and can’t be contested.

If you’re worried about leaving assets to young children or family members who aren’t good with money, you can structure your trust so that a responsible third party will manage the trust assets responsibly.

Depending on the type of trust you create, you can give protection creditor protection or protection in the event of a divorce. You can also place restrictions on the sale of your home—at least for a period of time.

Note that state laws differ on what creditor protection is available to a homeowner as to their home. Some states protect the debtor’s home from creditors outright, and some allow a home to be protected from creditors, if the debtor’s home is titled with a spouse (the spouse’s name is also on the home’s title) and the spouse is alive after the debtor’s death.

Reference: Yahoo Life (Jan. 10, 2022) “Why You Should Put Your House in a Living Trust”

What Should Same-Sex Couples Know about Estate Planning?

Proper estate planning can help ensure that your wishes are carried out exactly as intended in the event of a death or a serious illness, says Insurance Net News’ recent article entitled “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning.” Having a clearly stated plan in place can give clear instructions and potentially avoid any fights that otherwise might occur. For same-sex couples, this may be even more crucial.

Your estate plan should include a will or trust, beneficiary forms, powers of attorney, a living will and a letter of intent. It’s also smart to include a secure document with a list of your accounts, debts, assets and contact info for any key people involved in those accounts. This list should contain passwords for locked accounts and any other relevant information.

A will is a central component of an estate plan which ensures that your wishes are followed after you pass away. This alleviates your family from the responsibility of determining how to divide your property and takes the guessing and stress out of how to pass along belongings. A will or trust might also state the way in which to transfer your financial assets to your children. You should also make sure your beneficiary forms are up to date with your spouse for life insurance policies, bank accounts and retirement accounts.

For same-sex couples, it is particularly important to create a clear medical power of attorney and create a living will that states your medical directives, if you aren’t able to make those decisions on your own. If you aren’t married, this will give your partner the legal protection he or she needs to make those decisions. It is important for you to take time to have those conversations with your partner, so the plans and directives are clear. You can also draft a letter of intent, which is a written, personal note that can be included to help detail your wishes and provide reasoning for the decisions.

Protecting Your Minor Children. Name a legal guardian for them in your will, in the event both parents die. Same-sex couples must make sure that both parents have equal rights, especially in a case where one parent is the biological parent. If the surviving spouse or partner isn’t the biological parent and hasn’t legally adopted the children, don’t assume they’ll automatically be named guardian.  These laws vary from state to state.

Dissolve Old Unions. There could be challenges, if you entered into a civil union or domestic partnership before your marriage was legalized. Prior to the 2015 marriage equality ruling, some same-sex couples married in states where it was legal but resided in states where the marriage wasn’t recognized. If you and your partner broke up, but didn’t legally dissolve the union, it may still be legally binding. Moreover, some states converted civil unions and domestic partnerships to legal marriages, so you and a former partner could be legally married without knowing it. If a former union wasn’t with your current partner, make certain that you legally unbind yourself to avoid any future disputes on your estate.

Review Your Real Estate Documents. Check your real estate documents to confirm that both partners are listed and have equal rights to home ownership, especially if the home was purchased prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage or if you aren’t married. There are a few ways to split ownership of their property. This includes tenants in common, where both partners share ownership of the property, but allows each individual to leave their shares to another person in their will. There’s also joint tenants with rights to survivorship. This is when both partners are property owners but if one dies, the remaining partner retains sole ownership.

Estate planning can be a complex process, and same-sex couples may have more stress to make certain that they have a legally binding plan. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate planning process to put a solid plan to help provide peace of mind knowing your family is protected.

Reference: Insurance Net News (June 30, 2021) “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

How to Avoid Probate

Avoiding probate and minimizing estate taxes are sound estate planning goals, but they shouldn’t be the only focus of an estate plan.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we avoid probate and avoid taxes for our children?” says that proper estate planning is a much broader discussion you should have with a qualified estate attorney. However, the article offers some topics to discuss with an attorney, who can review all the specifics of your situation.

Probate is the legal process for settling the debts, taxes and last expenses of a deceased person and distributing the remaining assets to his or her heirs. The costs and time needed to settle an estate can be burdensome in some states. However, steps can be taken to significantly limit probate.

Without any special planning, there are a few types of assets that can be transferred outside of probate. Items owned jointly with rights of survivorship (JTWROS) automatically become the sole property of the survivor at the first joint owner’s death. This property doesn’t go through probate.

Accounts with beneficiary designations, like retirement accounts, annuities, and life insurance policies also pass outside probate. There is a payable on death (POD) feature that provides for a beneficiary designation on non-retirement accounts (like a bank account), so POD accounts can also be transferred outside of probate.

You can also create a living trust and transfer assets into the trust during your lifetime to avoid probate. Since the trust document dictates the way in which assets are distributed upon the death of the grantor rather than the will, probate is not needed here either.

In addition, ancillary probate is a second, simultaneous process that is needed when real estate is owned in a state outside the decedent’s state of residence.

Placing out-of-state real estate in a living trust is a useful way to avoid ancillary probate. You can also place the out-of-state real estate in a Limited Liability Company (LLC), so the estate owns an interest in an LLC rather than real property. That way, the entire probate process can be handled in the decedent’s state of residence. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to review which of these options — or perhaps another option — would be best for your unique situation and goals.

Other types of trusts, whether created during your lifetime or at your death, can provide creditor protection and ensure that an inheritance stays in the family, as well as help minimize estate taxes.

Under current law, federal estate tax is only due if your estate is worth more than $11.7 million (double that if you are married). A few states also have an estate tax. Other states also have an inheritance tax, but in many instances it does not apply to amounts left to the decedent’s closest relatives, including their children.

Reference: nj.com (March 24, 2021) “How can we avoid probate and avoid taxes for our children?”

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

Can I Add Real Estate Investments in My Will?

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “How to Include Real Estate Investments in Your Will” details some options that might make sense for you and your intended beneficiaries.

A living trust. A revocable living trust allows you to transfer any deeds into the trust’s name. While you’re still living, you’d be the trustee and be able to change the trust in whatever way you wanted. Trusts are a little more costly and time consuming to set up than wills, so you’ll need to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help. Once it’s done, the trust will let your trustee transfer any trust assets quickly and easily, while avoiding the probate process.

A beneficiary deed. This is also known as a “transfer-on-death deed.” It’s a process that involves getting a second deed to each property that you own. The beneficiary deed won’t impact your ownership of the property while you’re alive, but it will let you to make a specific beneficiary designation for each property in your portfolio. After your death, the individual executing your estate plan will be able to transfer ownership of each asset to its designated beneficiary. However, not all states allow for this method of transferring ownership. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the laws in your state.

Co-ownership. You can also pass along real estate assets without probate, if you co-own the property with your designated beneficiary. You’d change the title for the property to list your beneficiary as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. The property will then automatically by law pass directly to your beneficiary when you die. Note that any intended beneficiaries will have an ownership interest in the property from the day you put them on the deed. This means that you’ll have to consult with them, if you want to sell the property.

Wills and estate plans can feel like a ghoulish topic that requires considerable effort. However, it is worth doing the work now to avoid having your estate go through the probate process once you die. The probate process can be expensive and lengthy. It’s even more so, when real estate is involved.

Reference: Motley Fool (June 22, 2020) “How to Include Real Estate Investments in Your Will”