Probate is the field of law that determines how an estate must be divided. Each state has its own laws and statutes requirements to determine if and how an estate must be probated. The probate court will supervise the process when a deceased person (a decedent) leaves assets to distribute, such as bank accounts, real estate, and financial investments with or without a will. The probate court provides the final ruling on the division and distribution of assets to beneficiaries.

In many cases, the decedent has established documentation, which contains instructions on how their assets should be distributed after death and designates in such documents who oversees implementing this process.  This involves collecting the deceased’s assets to pay any remaining liabilities on their estate and distributing the assets to beneficiaries. Where a decedent fails to establish such documents while alive, State law and the probate courts will dictate how the estate is administered and to whom assets get distributed to.

Probate With a Will 

A deceased person with a Will is known as a testator and he or she is deemed to have died “testate.” When a testator dies, the person designated as the executor under the Will is responsible for initiating the probate process. The probate process for a testate estate includes distributing the decedent’s assets according to the Will.

Probate Without a Will 

When a person dies without a Will, a person is to have died intestate. An intestate estate can also occur when a written Will is presented to the probate court and the probate court has been deemed the Will to be invalid. The probate process for an intestate estate includes distributing the decedent’s assets according to State law.

What Is The Probate Process?

A probate court proceeding begins with the appointment of an administrator or executor to oversee the estate of the deceased person. Such personal is typically called the “personal representative.”  The personal representative receives all legal claims against the estate and paying off the outstanding debts. Also, the personal representative is tasked with locating any legal heirs of the deceased, including surviving spouses, children, and parents. Then the probate court will assess what assets need to be distributed among the legal heirs and how to distribute them.

The probate process can take a long time to finalize and can become costly, therefore it is important to know whether a probate is required following the death of an individual. The more complex or contested the estate is the more time it will take to settle and distribute the assets. Furthermore, the proceedings of probate court are publicly recorded so avoiding probate would ensure that all settlements are done privately.

Note though that having a Will does not mean that probate is avoided, it just serves a roadmap for the probate court. There are several options involved with end of life planning to help avoid the probate process.

Bypassing Probate

Use Of Probate Affidavits – If an estate is small enough to bypass the probate process, then the estate’s asset may be claimed using alternative legal actions, such as an affidavit.  State law will determine whether this process is available and if so the limitations and restrictions.

Use Of Beneficiary Designations – Some assets can bypass probate because beneficiaries have been initiated through contractual terms, such as pension plans, life insurance proceeds, 401(k) plans, medical savings accounts, trusts, living trusts, and individual retirement accounts (IRA) that have designated beneficiaries. However, if the beneficiary designation is missing or rules of succession for the asset are not clear, then the asset is transferred according to the Will, or to the deceased’s estate and therefore the asset will need to go through probate.

Joint Tenancy with the Right of SurvivorshipProperty owned in joint tenancy automatically passes, without probate, to the surviving owner(s) when one owner dies. Joint tenancy often works when couples (married or not) acquire real estate, vehicles, stocks, bank accounts, securities, or other valuable property together.  In Non-Community Property States, married couples (or registered domestic partners or civil union partners) take title not in joint tenancy, but in “tenancy by the entirety”. Both avoid probate. Joint tenancy is easy to create and easy for the survivor to transfer title to himself or herself after one owner dies. When one joint owner dies, the surviving owner(s) automatically get the deceased owner’s share of the joint tenancy property.  The property doesn’t go through probate court—the survivor(s) still need to fill out some paperwork and present it with the death certificate to the keeper of the ownership records to obtain the property into their names.  If you’re a joint tenant, you can’t leave your share to anyone other than the surviving joint tenants. The surviving joint tenant will automatically own the property after your death.  However, there are some drawbacks to joint tenancy such as, the last surviving joint tenant must use another method to avoid probate at death, probate isn’t avoided if both owners die simultaneously, share of each owner must be equal in most states, and if you own property by yourself, adding a joint tenant requires making a gift of a half-interest in the property.

Utilizing Trusts To Avoid Probate

Trusts are created by contracts usually set up with a written contract called a trust agreement. The trust maker (usually called the grantor or settlor) creating the trust will need to name a trustee (or trustees) in charge of the trust and the trust property, and the trust agreement must name a beneficiary or purpose for whom the trust property is held.  A trust can be revocable or irrevocable.

  • Revocable Trusts (sometimes called Living Trusts) – the grantor often names himself or herself as the initial trustee. The trust agreement should provide for successor trustees that can replace the initial trustee once the initial trustee steps down. The initial beneficiary of a revocable trust is usually the grantor, and when the grantor dies, the grantor’s children are usually the successor beneficiaries.  The trust agreement is a legal document, similar to a Will. The trust agreement lays out the terms, rules and provisions of the trust and the assets in it. A trustee who has a fiduciary duty is designated by the grantor as the individual (or entity) who, at a certain point, will control those assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries. The trust agreement allows a trustee to manage the assets in the trust and transfer them to beneficiaries after the grantor’s death. However, unlike a Will a trust takes effect while the grantor is living, and you can have both a trust and a Will. The trust does not have to go through probate for assets to go to beneficiaries when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. Assets must be assigned to the trust to be covered by its terms. That means they are re-titled to indicate ownership by the trust. The types of assets that can be assigned to (or fund) a trust include real estate (land, commercial property, homes), financial accounts (life insurance policies, checking accounts, savings accounts, money market accounts, stock and bond certificates, money owed to you, non-qualified annuities), personal property (jewelry, artwork, antiques), and business interests.
  • Irrevocable Trusts – operate in a similar manner as revocable trusts; however, oince executed the terms cannot be changed. They are typically used where the value of the estate is expected to be higher enough that there will be estate taxes or the grantor desires a layer of asset protection.  Special rules apply in order to address these objectives or concerns.  Irrevocable trust agreements should name a trustee other than the grantor, and an irrevocable trust will often name a beneficiary who is not the grantor.

Benefits of Trusts

In both revocable and irrevocable trusts, the trust agreement will name a trustee who has legal control and authority over the trust, and the trust agreement will also name a beneficiary who has equitable rights over the trust property. For either kind of trust, the trust maker must title property into the name of the trust, usually by naming the trust as owner of a financial account, or perhaps by filing a deed with a county recorder, naming the trust as owner of real property. Also, trusts avoid delays, probate costs, publicity from probate and family disputes, may be drafted to protect property from going to a beneficiary who has creditors or to preserve trust property from going to a beneficiary using government benefits, and they may help prevent many costly estate administration mistakes, such as taxes and beneficiary disputes.

What Should You Do?

The probate process could be expensive and complex especially during a time of grief. Consider reaching out to a Trusts and Estates and/or Probate Attorney such as those at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. We are always thinking of ways that our clients can save on taxes, trusts and estates planning, and probate matters. The tax attorneys at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Orange County (Irvine), Los Angeles and elsewhere in California are highly skilled in handling tax and probate matters and can effectively represent at all levels with the IRS and State Tax Agencies including criminal tax investigations and attempted prosecutions, undisclosed foreign bank accounts and other foreign assets, and unreported foreign income. Also, if you are involved in cannabis, check out what our cannabis tax attorney can do for you. Additionally, if you are involved in cryptocurrency, check out what a bitcoin tax attorney can do for you.