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”

Do Unrecorded Deeds Help or Hurt Estate Planning?

Using an unrecorded deed to transfer property without probate sounds like an easy way to transfer ownership of the family home, but is it asking for trouble? That’s the topic of an article from NWI Times entitled, “Estate Planning: Are unrecorded deeds a good idea?” The fact that the idea came from a family’s attorney makes the question even more important. The attorney told the parents the children could record the deed after their deaths and transfer the property without probate.

Most estate planning attorneys haven’t seen this technique used in a long time, and some may never have heard of it. There’s probably a good reason for this—it’s an estate mess waiting to happen.

First of all, what if the deed itself goes missing? One of the most common questions estate planning attorneys hear is “What do I do because Mom lost the_____?” Fill in the blanks—the deed, the title to the car, the bank statement, etc. Important documents often get lost. If a deed is missing and can’t be recorded, title can’t be transferred. Hoping an important piece of paper doesn’t get lost is not an estate plan.

Until the deed is recorded, and title transferred, the holders of the title still own the property. They can mortgage the property or sell it. The plan for the children to receive and record the deed may not have legal authority.

Laws about how deeds must be created change. Indiana made a change to the law in 2020 that required signatures on deeds to be witnessed. Without the witness, the deeds can’t be recorded. If the adult child is holding a deed for the recording and it’s not witnessed because the parents have died, it can’t be recorded.

There are better ways to transfer ownership of the family home that adhere to the general principles of estate planning.

There are also different types of deeds that are more commonly used in estate planning to transfer home ownership without going through probate. One is a Transfer on Death Deed (TOD Deeds). A TOD deed allows a person to name beneficiaries on their real estate property without giving up any rights of ownership. The TOD deed is recorded, so there’s no worry about mom or pop losing the paperwork.  The TOD deed can also be changed by recording another deed or using an affidavit.

Trusts can also be used to transfer home ownership and keep the transaction out of probate. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain the different types of trusts used to transfer a home. State laws vary, and allowable trusts vary, so talking with a local estate planning attorney is the best option.

Reference: NWI Times (May23, 2021) “Estate Planning: Are unrecorded deeds a good idea?”

What Is the Main Purpose of a Trust?

There are advantages and disadvantages of an irrevocable trust, and you’ll want to be fully informed before taking steps that may be costly to undo, explains the article “Understanding your trust” from The Sentinel. Once your home is deeded to an irrevocable trust, you won’t be able to make any changes without getting permission from the beneficiary or beneficiaries named in the trust. Your rights of ownership are transferred to the trust, when you deed it to the trust.

A separate legal agreement with the trustee, the person in charge of the trust, will be needed to give you a legal right to occupy the home also. Any changes could be made but will take time and could be costly. Changes can also only be made, if the beneficiaries agree.

There was a time when lenders inserted clauses into mortgages that any time a sale or transfer of the deed occurred, full payment of the mortgage would be due. This changed, and today the mortgage is not due just because of a change in the deed. However, it may be a challenge to refinance, if the home is held in an irrevocable trust.

For most people, the reason to put a home into an irrevocable trust is to prevent the home from being lost to a creditor, including protecting the home’s equity from the cost of nursing home care, during life or after death. In some states, like Pennsylvania, the state will initiate a collection action against the estate to recover the amount paid for the deceased homeowner’s nursing care costs.

The move to put a home into an irrevocable trust can work as long as the trust remains intact, and the homeowner does not apply for financial assistance for nursing home care for at least five years from the date that the deed was transferred as recorded in the courthouse.

If long-term care needs arise before that time, putting the home into an irrevocable trust may not serve its intended purpose.

There are some tax benefits from an irrevocable trust. If the homeowner lives at least one year after the home is deeded to the trust, in some states no inheritance taxes will be due on the home. Check with a local estate planning attorney to learn what the rules are in your state.

If the trust is prepared by an experienced elder law attorney, it is likely that the capital gain on the sale of the home by the trust after the homeowner’s death will be taxed based on the home’s value at the time of sale, rather than the value at the time it is placed into the trust or on the day of death.

If the home is the only asset in the trust, the taxpayer ID of the trust will be the homeowner’s Social Security number, and no annual tax return is required. If, however, other assets, particularly income-producing assets, are placed in the trust, then the trust needs to have its own EIN (a federal tax identification number) and annual tax returns will need to be paid. Taxes on a trust are normally at a higher rate than individual income rates.

Your estate planning attorney will explain the numerous strategies that can be used to protect your assets and your home from the high cost of long-term care. There are many Medicaid compliant techniques and tools, depending upon the situation of the individual and the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (April 23, 2021) “Understanding your trust”

Does a Trust Have to Be Funded to Be Valid?

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

How Does a Trust Work for a Farm Family?

There are four elements to a trust, as described in this recent article “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool,” from Ag Decision Maker: trustee, trust property, trust document and beneficiaries. The trust is created by the trust document, also known as a trust agreement. The person who creates the trust is called the trustmaker, grantor, settlor, or trustor. The document contains instructions for management of the trust assets, including distribution of assets and what should happen to the trust, if the trustmaker dies or becomes incapacitated.

Beneficiaries of the trust are also named in the trust document, and may include the trustmaker, spouse, relatives, friends and charitable organizations.

The individual who creates the trust is responsible for funding the trust. This is done by changing the title of ownership for each asset that is placed in the trust from an individual’s name to that of the trust. Failing to fund the trust is an all too frequent mistake made by trustmakers.

The assets of the trust are managed by the trustee, named in the trust document. The trustee is a fiduciary, meaning they must place the interest of the trust above their own personal interest. Any management of trust assets, including collecting income, conducting accounting or tax reporting, investments, etc., must be done in accordance with the instructions in the trust.

The process of estate planning includes an evaluation of whether a trust is useful, given each family’s unique circumstances. For farm families, gifting an asset like farmland while retaining lifetime use can be done through a retained life estate, but a trust can be used as well. If the family is planning for future generations, wishing to transfer farm income to children and the farmland to grandchildren, for example, a granted life estate or a trust document will work.

Other situations where a trust is needed include families where there is a spendthrift heir, concerns about litigious in-laws or a second marriage with children from prior marriages.

Two main types of trust are living or inter-vivos trusts and testamentary trusts. The living trust is established and funded by a living person, while the testamentary trust is created in a will and is funded upon the death of the willmaker.

There are two main types of living trusts: revocable and irrevocable. The revocable trust transfers assets into a trust, but the grantor maintains control over the assets. Keeping control means giving up any tax benefits, as the assets are included as part of the estate at the time of death. When the trust is irrevocable, it cannot be altered, amended, or terminated by the trustmaker. The assets are not counted for estate tax purposes in most cases.

When farm families include multiple generations and significant assets, it’s important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the farm’s property and assets are protected and successfully passed from generation to generation.

Reference: Ag Decision Maker (Dec. 2020) “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool”

Is Probate Required If There Is a Surviving Spouse?

Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a deceased person’s estate. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. In the absence of a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.

Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem this can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly, when there is no will.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.

There are also limitations as to how probate can be used to distribute and manage an estate. In some states, the time limit is four years from the date of death.

An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

Have Your Will Done? Be Aware, That’s Not An Estate Plan~

A last will and testament is an important part of an estate plan, and every adult should have one. However, there is only so much that a will can do, according to the article “Estate planning involves more than a will” from The News-Enterprise.

First, let’s look at what a will does. During your lifetime, you have the right to transfer property. If you have a Power of Attorney, or POA, it gives someone you name the authority to transfer your property or manage your affairs, while you are alive. In most states, this document expires upon your death.

When you die, a will is used to transfer your property, according to your wishes. If you do not have a will, the court must determine who receives the property, as determined by your state’s law. However, only certain property passes through a will.

Individually owned property that does not have a designated beneficiary must be transferred though the process of probate. This includes real property, like house or a land, if there is no right of survivorship provision within the deed. The deed to the property determines the type of ownership each person has.

Couples who purchase property after they are married, usually own the property with the right of survivorship. This means that the surviving owner continues to own the property without it going through probate.

However, when deeds do not have this provision, each owner owns only a portion of the property. When one owner dies, the remaining owner’s portion must be passed through probate to the beneficiaries of the decedent.

Assets that do not have a designated beneficiary do not pass through probate, but are paid directly to the beneficiary. These are usually life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment and/or bank accounts. Your will does not control these assets.

Beneficiaries through the will only receive whatever property is left over, after all reasonable expenses and debts are paid.

If you wish to ensure that beneficiaries receive assets over time, that can be done through a trust. The trust can be the beneficiary of a payable-on-death account. A revocable trust avoids property going through the probate process and can be established with your directions for distribution.

A will is a good start to an estate plan, but it is not the whole plan. Speak with an estate planning attorney about your situation and they will be able to create a plan that addresses distribution of your assets, as well as protect you from incapacity.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (September 30, 2019) “Estate planning involves more than a will”