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Probate

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Planning Pitfall: Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Planning Pitfall: Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Transfer of property at death can be rather complex.  Many are under the impression that instructions provided in a valid will are sufficient to transfer their assets to the individuals named in the will.   However, there are a myriad of rules that affect how different types of assets transfer to heirs and beneficiaries, often in direct contradiction of what may be clearly stated in one’s will.

The legal process of administering property owned by someone who has passed away with a will is called probate.  Prior to his passing, a deceased person, or decedent, usually names an executor to oversee the process by which his wishes, outlined in his Will, are to be carried out. Probate property, generally consists of everything in a decedent’s estate that was directly in his name. For example, a house, vehicle, monies, stocks or any other asset in the decedent’s name is probate property. Any real or personal property that was in the decedent’s name can be defined as probate property.  

The difference between non-probate property and probate centers around whose name is listed as owner. Non-probate property consists of property that lists both the decedent and another as the joint owner (with right of survivorship) or where someone else has already been designated as a beneficiary, such as life insurance or a retirement account.  In these cases, the joint owners and designated beneficiaries supersede conflicting instructions in one’s will. Other examples of non-probate property include property owned by trusts, which also have beneficiaries designated. At the decedent’s passing, the non-probate items pass automatically to whoever is the joint owner or designated beneficiary.

Why do you need to know the difference? Simply put, the categories of probate and non-probate property will have a serious effect on how plan your estate.  If you own property jointly with right of survivorship with another individual, that individual will inherit your share, regardless of what it states in your will.  Estate and probate law can be different from state-to-state, so it’s best to have an attorney handle your estate plan and property ownership records to ensure that your assets go to the intended beneficiaries.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper estate planning, procedures, your heirs could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate court fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is the ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the will is reviewed, executors are approved, heirs, beneficiaries, debtors and creditors are notified, assets are appraised, your debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Probate is costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust, on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries, quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust consists of a declaration of trust, a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the declaration, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the declaration, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”. This will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – will be distributed to whomever you want to receive it. Without a will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks by filing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust settlement process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.


Monday, December 10, 2012

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

An executor is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. Generally, the executor’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The executor may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

First and foremost, an executor must obtain the original, signed Will as well as other important documents such as certified copies of the Death Certificate.  The executor must notify all persons who have an interest in the estate or who are named as beneficiaries in the Will. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death. The executor must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits.

The executor is responsible for compiling a list of the decedent’s debts, as well. Debts can include credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases. All of the decedent’s creditors must also be notified and given an opportunity to make a claim against the estate.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the executor’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the executor must file with the court to probate the Will and be appointed as the estate’s legal representative.  Once the executor has this legal authority, he or she must pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the executor must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the executor is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The executor is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Additional tasks may include notifying carriers for homeowner’s and auto insurance policies and initiating claims on life insurance policies.

The executor is entitled to compensation for his or her services.  This fee varies according to the estate’s size and may be subject to review depending on the complexity as well as the time and effort expended by the executor.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession, and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash, within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.





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The Elder and Special Needs Law Center - Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a service of attorney John H. Baker III, of counsel with the law firm of Bullock, Fly, Hornsby & Evans. Offices are located at 307 Hickerson Drive, Murfreesboro (Rutherford County), TN 37129. Surrounding communities include Smyrna and LaVergne (Rutherford County), Franklin and Brentwood (Williamson County), Woodbury (Cannon County), Manchester and Tullahoma (Coffee County), Lebanon (Wilson County) and Shelbyville (Bedford County).