Do You Have to Go through Probate When Someone Dies?

Probate is a required court proceeding under certain circumstances, although the rules surrounding probate are slightly different from state to state. In Hawaii, if a person dies owning real estate in their own name or if the total value of personal property is worth more than $100,000, their estate must be probated. In other states that threshold may be lower. Most states require probate regardless of the estate’s value, unless the estate assets are arranged to avoid probate.

This is explained in a recent article “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate” from The Hawaii Herald.

Probate also requires written notice to be sent to the persons named in the will and to persons who would have inherited, if there had been no will. This is a big reason why many people use trusts and other alternative estate planning strategies. In addition, a will becomes part of the public record when it goes through probate, so creditors and others can see your will and learn all about your estate. So can estranged family members, ex-spouses, people looking for sales leads and thieves!

If there is no will, assets are distributed according to the state’s law of intestacy. These laws specify who receives inheritances, based on kinship. If a will is deemed invalid by the court, then the will is discarded, as are your wishes, and the laws of intestacy take over. This is another reason to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a properly prepared will and estate plan.

Probate can be a time-consuming process, delaying the distribution of assets. If the estate is complex, the process could take years.

Certain assets do not go through probate. These includes assets held by two or more people as “joint tenants” or “tenants by the entirety.” Real estate, checking accounts, saving accounts, and investment accounts can be owned this way. However, there can be pitfalls. If one person has debts, creditors may come after the assets, regardless of who the original owner may be.

Assets with a named beneficiary do not go through probate. This includes life insurance, IRAs, 401(k)s, annuities, savings bonds, “Transfer on Death (TOD accounts) and “Pay on Death” (POD accounts). It is very important to review all beneficiary designations every few years. Someone you may have named as a co-owner twenty years ago may no longer be in your life, or you may want to change the beneficiary. If you do not make any changes, whoever you originally named on the account will receive the assets.

Trusts are used to avoid probate, while directing what will happen to assets when you die. A Revocable Living Trust allows you to maintain control over the assets while living, but because you still have control over the assets in the trust, they are considered a countable asset by Medicaid.

To protect your assets from going through probate and to prepare for possible long-term care needs, an estate planning attorney can create a plan, possibly including a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT).

Reference: The Hawaii Herald (Jan. 21, 2022) “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate”

When Should a Trust Be Reviewed?

Life changes, and laws change too. The great trust created two decades ago may not be a good idea today and may no longer be suitable for you or your beneficiaries. As a general rule, you should review your estate plan and trust every other year, according to the article “Revisit trust on a regular basis” from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Start with the Table of Contents, if there is one. There should be language concerning “Successor Trustees.” Are the trustees you named still alive? Are they still part of your life, and do you still trust them? How are their money skills? If they don’t get along with the rest of the family, or if they have been embroiled in a series of petty disputes, they may not be appropriate to manage your trust. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Your estate planning attorney will know how to do this smoothly and properly.

Next, find the paragraph that discusses “Disposition on Death” or “Disposition on Death of Surviving Spouse.” Does it still make sense for your loved ones? Have any children or family members who are listed as receiving benefits died? Are any heirs disabled and receiving government benefits? Have any of your children developed addictions, problems handling money, married people you don’t trust, or are preparing to divorce their spouses? Changes can be made to protect your children from themselves and from others in their lives.

Look for a “Schedule of Trust Assets.” When was the last time this was updated? If you’ve moved and the trust still lists your last residence, you need to change it. Is your new home in the trust? Are retirement accounts correctly listed? Do you have new assets you’ve never placed in the trust? This is a common, and costly, oversight.

If married, how does the trust address what occurs between the death of the first spouse and the surviving spouse? Do you have an A/B trust to divide everything between a Survivor’s Trust and a Bypass Trust or Exemption Trust? Maybe you don’t need or want an A/B trust anymore. Talk with your estate planning attorney to be sure this is structured properly for your life right now.

How is your health? If you or a spouse are in a nursing home or if one of you is ill and likely to needs nursing home care, it may be time to start planning for a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust.

While you’re reviewing your trusts, trustees and beneficiaries, don’t forget to review the people named as beneficiaries for your retirement accounts and life insurance policies. These should be reviewed regularly as well.

Reviewing your trust and estate plan on a regular basis is just as necessary as an annual physical. Leaving your accumulated assets unprotected is easily fixed, while you are alive and well.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (Nov. 20, 2021) “Revisit trust on a regular basis”

Estate Planning for a Second Marriage and Blended Family

It takes a certain kind of courage to embark on second, third or even fourth marriages, even when there are no children from prior marriages. Regardless of how many times you walk down the aisle, the recent article “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a second marriage” from the Times Herald-Record advises couples to take care of the business side of their lives before saying “I do” again.

Full disclosure of each other’s assets, overall estate planning goals and plans for protecting assets from the cost of long-term care should happen before getting married. The discussion may not be easy, but it’s necessary: are they leaving assets to each other, or to children from a prior marriage? What if one wants to leave a substantial portion of their wealth to a charitable organization?

The first step recommended with remarriage is a prenuptial or prenup, a contract that the couple signs before getting married, to clarify what happens if they should divorce and what happens on death. The prenup typically lists all of each spouses’ assets and often a “Waiver of the Right of Election,” meaning they willingly give up any inheritance rights.

If the couple does not wish to have a prenup, they can use a Postnuptial Agreement (postnup). This document has the same intent and provisions as a prenup but is signed after they are legally wed. Over time, spouses may decide to leave assets to each other through trusts, owning assets together or naming each other as beneficiaries on various assets, including life insurance or investment accounts.

Without a pre-or postnup, assets will go to the surviving spouse upon death, with little or possibly nothing going to the children.

The couple should also talk about long-term care costs, which can decimate a family’s finances. Plan A is to have long-term care insurance. If either of the spouses has not secured this insurance and cannot get a policy, an alternate is to have their estate planning attorney create a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT). Once assets have been inside the trust for five years for nursing home costs and two-and-a-half years for home care paid by Medicaid, they are protected from long-term care costs.

When applying for Medicaid, the assets of both spouses are at risk, regardless of pre- or postnup documents.

Discuss the use of trusts with your estate planning attorney. A will conveys property, but assets must go through probate, which can be costly, time-consuming and leave your assets open to court battles between heirs. Trusts avoid probate, maintain privacy and deflect family squabbles.

Creating a trust and placing the joint home and any assets, including cash and investments, inside the trust is a common estate planning strategy. When the first spouse dies, a co-trustee who serves with the surviving spouse can prevent the surviving spouse from changing the trust and by doing so, protect the children’s inheritance. Let’s say one of the couple suffers from dementia, remarries or is influenced by others—a new will could leave the children of the deceased spouse with nothing.

Many things can very easily go wrong in second marriages. Prior planning with an experienced estate planning attorney can protect the couple and their children and provide peace of mind for all concerned.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 21, 2020) “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a second marriage”