Probate: What It Is & How To Avoid It—Part 2
Unless you’ve created an estate plan that works to keep your family out of court, when you die (or become incapacitated) many of your assets must go through probate before those assets can be distributed to your heirs. Like most court proceedings, probate can be time-consuming, costly, and open to the public, and because of this, avoiding probate—and keeping your family out of court—is often a central goal of estate planning.
To spare your loved one’s the time, cost, and stress inherent to probate, last week in part one of this series, we explained how the probate process works and what it would entail for your loved ones. Here in part two, we’ll discuss the major drawbacks of probate for your family, and outline the different ways you can help them avoid probate with wise planning. (Click here to read last week's article "Probate: What It Is & How To Avoid It - Part 1)
What’s At Stake For Your Family Probate court proceedings can take months, and sometimes even years, to complete. In the immediate aftermath of your death, that’s the last thing you likely want your loved ones to have to endure. And the cost of their time and emotional strain are just the start of the potentially devastating consequences your family could face if you don’t plan ahead. Without easy and immediate access to your assets, your family could face serious financial hardship at a time when they need the most support. Not only that, but to help them navigate the legal proceedings, your loved ones will almost certainly need to hire a lawyer, which can result in hefty attorney’s fees and the real risk of them hiring a lawyer who is uncommunicative, which only creates more stress for them. All of that is on top of the court costs, executor’s compensation, and all of the various other administrative expenses related to probate. By the time all of those costs have been paid, your estate could be totally wiped out, or at the very least, seriously depleted.
Another drawback of probate is the fact that it’s a public process. Whether you have a will or not, all of the proceedings that take place during probate become part of the public record. This means that anyone who’s interested can learn about the contents of your estate, who your beneficiaries are, and what they will inherit, which can set them up as potential targets for scammers and frauds.
Probate also has the potential to create conflict among your loved ones. This is particularly true if you have disinherited someone or plan to leave significantly more money to one relative than the others, in which case, a family member may contest your will. And even if those contests don’t succeed, such court fights will only increase the time, expense, and strife your family has to endure.
How To Avoid Probate
Before we discuss the more advanced ways you can use estate planning to allow your loved ones to avoid probate, it’s important to point out that not all of your assets will have to go through the probate process—and that’s true even if you don’t have any estate plan at all. Assets That Do Not Require Probate: Certain assets, such as those with beneficiary designations like 401(k)s, IRAs, and the proceeds from life insurance policies, will pass directly to the individuals or organizations you designated as your beneficiary, without the need for any additional planning.
The following are some of the most common assets that use beneficiary designations and therefore, bypass probate:
Retirement accounts, IRAs, 401(k)s, and pensions
Life insurance or annuity proceeds
Payable-on-death (POD) bank accounts
Transfer-on-death (TOD) property, such as bonds, stocks, vehicles, and real estate
Outside of assets with beneficiary designations, other assets that do not go through probate include assets with a right of survivorship, such as property held in joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety, and community property with the right of survivorship. These assets automatically pass to the surviving co-owner(s) when you die, without the need for probate.
However, it’s critical to note here that if you name your “estate'' as the beneficiary of any of these assets, those assets will go through probate before being distributed. The same goes if you overlook a beneficiary designation, or if you die at the same time as a joint property owner—each of those assets will also go through probate, even though they have beneficiary designations. In addition, we generally recommend that you do not rely on beneficiary designations to handle the distribution of your assets. These designations give you little to no control over how your assets are distributed, and they can result in negative outcomes you did not intend, especially if you have a blended family with children from a prior marriage or if you have no children at all. Although there are several different types of assets that automatically bypass probate, the majority of your assets will require slightly more advanced levels of planning to ensure your loved ones can immediately access them, without the need for any court proceedings in the event something happens to you. The primary estate planning tool for this purpose are trusts.
Avoiding Probate With A Revocable Living Trust Trusts are a popular estate planning tool for avoiding probate. Although there are a variety of different types of trust, the most commonly used trust for probate avoidance is a revocable living trust, also called a “living trust.”
A trust is basically a legal agreement between the “grantor” (the person who puts assets into the trust) and the “trustee” (the person who agrees to manage those assets) to hold title to assets for the benefit of the “beneficiary.” With a revocable living trust, this agreement is typically made between you as the grantor and you as the trustee for the benefit of you as the beneficiary. You act as your own trustee during your lifetime, and then you name someone as a “successor trustee” to take over management of the trust when you die or in the event of your incapacity.
It might seem odd to make an agreement with yourself to hold title to assets for yourself in order to benefit yourself. Yet by doing so, you remove those assets from the court’s jurisdiction in the event of your incapacity or when you die. Instead, those assets transfer to your successor trustee, without any court intervention required. At that point, your successor trustee is responsible for managing the trust assets and eventually distributing them to your beneficiaries, according to the terms