How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate?

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

Can I Avoid Probate?

If you have life insurance, lifetime survivor benefits, a home or other investments, who gets them and when depends on what you have done or should do: have an estate plan. This is how you legally protect your family and friends to be sure that they receive what you want after you die, says the article “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!” from Federal News Network.

A common goal is to simplify your estate plan to make administering it as easy as possible for your loved ones. This usually involves structuring an estate plan to avoid probate, which can be time-consuming and, depending on where you live, add a considerable cost to settle your estate.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this through an estate plan, including jointly owned property, beneficiary designations and the use of trusts.

Many individuals hold property in joint names, also known as “tenant by the entirety” with a spouse. When one spouse dies, the other becomes the owner without probate. It should be noted that this supersedes the terms of a will or a trust.

Another type of joint ownership is “tenancy in common,” However, property held as tenants in common does not avoid probate. The distribution of property titled this way is governed by the will. If there is no will, the state’s estate laws will govern who receives the property on death of one of the owners.

Beware: property owned jointly is subject to any litigation or creditor issues of a joint owner. It can be risky.

Beneficiary designations are a seamless way to transfer property. This can take the form of a POD (payable on death) or TOD (transfer on death) account. Pensions, insurance policies and certain types of retirement accounts provide owners with the opportunity to name a beneficiary. Upon the death of the owner, the assets pass directly to the beneficiary. The asset is not subject to probate and the designations supersede the terms of a will or trust.

Review beneficiary designations every time you review your estate plan. If you opened a 401(k) account at your first job and have not reviewed the beneficiary designation in many years, you may be unwittingly giving someone you have not seen for years a nice surprise upon your passing.

If you own assets other than joint property or assets without beneficiary designation, an estate planning attorney can structure your estate plan to include trusts. A trust is a legal entity owning any property transferred into it. A trust can avoid probate and provide a great deal of control by the grantor as to what they want to happen to the property.

Reference: Federal News Network (March 30, 2022) “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!”

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”

What Is Considered an Asset in an Estate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if a particular asset will be included in an estate, from life insurance and real estate to employment contracts and Health Savings Accounts. The answer is explored in the aptly-titled article, “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?” from Kiplinger.

When you die, your estate is defined in different ways for different planning purposes. You have a gross estate for federal estate taxes. However, there’s also the probate estate. You may also be thinking of whether an asset is part of your estate to be passed onto heirs. It depends on which part of your estate you’re focusing on.

Let’s start with life insurance. You’ve purchased a policy for $500,000, with your son as the designated beneficiary. If you own the policy, the entire $500,000 death benefit will be included in your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. If your estate is big enough ($12.06 million in 2022), the entire death benefit above the exemption is subject to a 40% federal estate tax.

However, if you want to know if the policy will be included in your probate estate, the answer is no. Proceeds from life insurance policies are not subject to probate, since the death benefit passes by contract directly to the beneficiaries.

Next, is the policy an estate asset available for heirs, creditors, taxing authorities, etc.? The answer is a little less clear. Since your son was named the designated beneficiary, your estate can’t use the proceeds to fulfill bequests made to others through your will. Even if you disowned your son since naming him on the policy and changed your will to pass your estate to other children, the life insurance policy is a contract. Therefore, the money is going to your son, unless you change this while you are still living.

However, there’s a little wrinkle here. Can the proceeds of the life insurance policy be diverted to pay creditors, taxes, or other estate obligations? Here the answer is, it depends. An example is if your son receives the money from the insurance company but your will directs that his share of the probate estate be reduced to reflect his share of costs associated with probate. If the estate doesn’t have enough assets to cover the cost of probate, he may need to tap the proceeds to pay his share.

Another aspect of figuring out what’s included in your estate depends upon where you live. In community property states—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—assets are treated differently for estate tax purposes than in states with what’s known as “common law” for married couples. Also, in most states, real estate owned on a fee simple basis is simply transferred on death through the probate estate, while in other states, an alternative exists where a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed is used.

This legal jargon may be confusing, but it’s important to know, because if property is in your probate estate, expenses may vary from 2% to 6%, versus assets outside of probate, which have no expenses.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state of residence to know what assets are included in your federal estate, what are part of your probate estate and what taxes will be levied on your estate from the state or federal governments and don’t forget, some states have inheritance taxes your heirs will need to pay.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 13, 2021) “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?”

What a Will Can and Cannot Do

Having a will doesn’t avoid probate, the court-directed process of validating a will and confirming the executor. To avoid probate, an estate planning attorney can create trusts and other ways for assets to be transferred directly to heirs before or upon death. Estate planning is guided by the laws of each state, according to the article “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do” from Arkansas Online.

In some states, probate is not expensive or lengthy, while in others it is costly and time-consuming. However, one thing is consistent: when a will is probated, it becomes part of the public record and anyone who wishes to read it, like creditors, ex-spouses, or estranged children, may do so.

One way to bypass probate is to create a revocable living trust and then transfer ownership of real estate, financial accounts, and other assets into the trust. You can be the trustee, but upon your death, your successor trustee takes charge and distributes assets according to the directions in the trust.

Another way people avoid probate is to have assets retitled to be owned jointly. However, anything owned jointly is vulnerable, depending upon the good faith of the other owner. And if the other owner has trouble with creditors or is ending a marriage, the assets may be lost to debt or divorce.

Accounts with beneficiaries, like life insurance and retirement funds bypass probate. The person named as the beneficiary receives assets directly. Just be sure the designated beneficiaries are updated every few years to be current.

Assets titled “Payable on Death” (POD), or “Transfer on Death” (TOD) designate beneficiaries and bypass probate, but not all financial institutions allow their use.

In some states, you can have a TOD deed for real estate or vehicles. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state allows.

Some people think they can use their wills to enforce behavior, putting conditions on inheritances, but certain conditions are not legally enforceable. If you required a nephew to marry or divorce before receiving an inheritance, it’s not likely to happen. Someone must also oversee the bequest and decide when the inheritance can be distributed.

However, trusts can be used to set conditions on asset distribution. The trust documents are used to establish your wishes for the assets and the trustee is charged with following your directions on when and how much to distribute assets to beneficiaries.

Leaving money to a disabled person who depends on government benefits puts their eligibility for benefits like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid at risk. An estate planning attorney can create a Special Needs Trust to allow for an inheritance without jeopardizing their services.

Finally, in certain states you can use a will to disinherit a spouse, but it’s not easy. Every state has a way to protect a spouse from being completely disinherited. In community property states, a spouse has a legal right to half of any property acquired during the marriage, regardless of how the property is titled. In other states, a spouse has a legal right to a third to one half of the estate, regardless of what is in the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can help draft the documents, but depending on your state and circumstances, it may not be possible to completely disinherit a spouse.

Reference: Arkansas Online (Dec. 27, 2021) “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do”

Does a TOD Supersede a Trust?

Many people incorporate a TOD, or “Transfer on Death” into their financial plan, thinking it will be easier for their loved ones than creating a trust. The article “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?” from Kiplinger explains how it really works.

The TOD account allows the account owner to name a beneficiary on an account who receives funds when the account owner dies. The TOD is often used for stocks, brokerage accounts, bonds and other non-retirement accounts. A POD, or “Payable on Death,” account is usually used for bank assets—cash.

The chief goal of a TOD or POD is to avoid probate. The beneficiaries receive assets directly, bypassing probate, keeping the assets out of the estate and transferring them faster than through probate. The beneficiary contacts the financial institution with an original death certificate and proof of identity.  The assets are then distributed to the beneficiary. Banks and financial institutions can be a bit exacting about determining identity, but most people have the needed documents.

There are pitfalls. For one thing, the executor of the estate may be empowered by law to seek contributions from POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay for the expenses of administering an estate, estate and final income taxes and any debts or liabilities of the estate. If the beneficiaries do not contribute voluntarily, the executor (or estate administrator) may file a lawsuit against them, holding them personally responsible, to get their contributions.

If the beneficiary has already spent the money, or they are involved in a lawsuit or divorce, turning over the TOD/POD assets may get complicated. Other personal assets may be attached to make up for a shortfall.

If the beneficiary is receiving means-tested government benefits, as in the case of an individual with special needs, the TOD/POD assets may put their eligibility for those benefits at risk.

These and other complications make using a POD/TOD arrangement riskier than expected.

A trust provides a great deal more protection for the person creating the trust (grantor) and their beneficiaries. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, trustees will be in place to manage assets for the grantor’s benefit. With a TOD/POD, a Power of Attorney would be needed to allow the other person to control of the assets. The same banks reluctant to hand over a POD/TOD are even more strict about Powers of Attorney, even denying POAs, if they feel the forms are out-of-date or don’t have the state’s required language.

Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney allows you to plan for yourself and your beneficiaries. You can plan for incapacity and plan for the assets in your trust to be used as you wish. If you want your adult children to receive a certain amount of money at certain ages or stages of their lives, a trust can be created to do so. You can also leave money for multiple generations, protecting it from probate and taxes, while building a legacy.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 2, 2021) “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?”

TOD and POD Accounts: What’s the Difference?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts – Which Is Better?” explains that a TOD account typically deals with distributing stocks, brokerage accounts or bonds to the named beneficiary, when the account holder dies. A POD account is similar to a TOD account. However, it handles a person’s bank assets (cash), not their securities.

Both TOD and POD accounts are quick and simple ways of avoiding probate. That can be slow, expensive, public and possibly messy. Financial institutions offer TOD and POD at their discretion, but almost all major brokerage houses and investment houses now have these types of accounts, as well as most banks for standard bank accounts. Many even let you handle this online.

The big benefit of using a POD or TOD account is probate avoidance. As mentioned, TOD and POD accounts avoid the probate process, by naming a beneficiary or beneficiaries to inherit the asset directly when the account owner passes away. These accounts can distribute assets quickly and seamlessly to the intended beneficiary.

However, when someone passes away, there can be creditors, expenses of administering the decedent’s estate and taxes owed. The person or persons responsible for administering the decedent’s estate are typically empowered under the law to seek contributions from the POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay those liabilities. If the beneficiaries don’t contribute voluntarily, there may be no choice but to file a lawsuit to obtain the contributions. The beneficiary may also have spent those assets or have other circumstances, such as involvement in a lawsuit or a divorce. Consequently, these situations will complicate turning over those assets.

A trust lets you to plan for incapacity, and if the creator of the trust becomes incapacitated, a successor or co-trustee can assume management of the account for the benefit of the creator. With a POD or TOD account, a durable power of attorney would be required to have another person handle the account. Note that financial institutions can be reluctant to accept powers of attorney, if the documents are old or don’t have the appropriate language.

A trust allows you to plan for your beneficiaries, and if your beneficiaries are minors, have special needs, have creditor issues, or have mental health or substance abuse issues, trusts can hold and manage assets to protect those assets for the beneficiary’s use. Inheritances can also be managed over long periods of time with a trust.

Although in some cases POD and TOD accounts can be appropriate for probate avoidance, their limitations at addressing other issues can cause many individuals to opt for a revocable trust. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to see what’s best for you and your family.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 2, 2021) “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts – Which Is Better?”

Does a Prenup Make Sense?

Take the time to think about your financial plans before you get married to help set you on the right path. chase.com’s recent article entitled “How to prepare your finances for marriage” explains that a prenuptial agreement sets out each prospective spouse’s rights and responsibilities, if one spouse dies or the couple gets divorced.

This is a guide for dividing and distributing assets. A prenuptial agreement can also be a valuable tool for planning since it will take priority over presumptions about what’s deemed community property, separate property, and marital property. A prenup can also prevent one spouse from being responsible for premarital debts of the other in the event of death or divorce.

A prenup is used frequently when one spouse or one spouse’s family is significantly wealthier than the other; or when one family owns a business and wants to make sure only family members can own and manage it.

Negotiate a prenuptial agreement early. If you know that you want to have your fiancé to sign a prenuptial agreement, do it ASAP because some courts have found a prenup invalid because it was entered into under duress and signed and negotiated right before the wedding.

Examine employee benefits. Make certain that you understand know how marriage will impact your employee benefits, especially if you and your spouse are working. See what would be less expensive, and if one offers significantly better coverage. Marriage almost always is a life event that permits you to modify your benefits elections outside of annual open enrollment.

Review beneficiary designations and estate planning documents. It’s common for young people prior to marriage to name their parents or siblings as beneficiary of accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, life insurance and transfer on death (TOD) and payable on death (POD) accounts. Review these designations and accounts and, if needed, change your beneficiary to your new spouse after the wedding. You should also be sure you to update your estate planning documents, including wills, health care designations, powers of attorneys and others, to reflect your new situation.

Communication is critical. Start your marriage with strong communication to help you better face future challenges together.

Reference: chase.com (May 25, 2021) “How to prepare your finances for marriage”