Probate: Dissolving the Mystery
It is important to understand the probate process before deciding whether and how to avoid it.

Probate: Dissolving the Mystery

probate and estate planning
If you want to avoid probate, work with an experienced attorney to coordinate your plan and assets.

Probate avoidance is a common concern for our clients.  They frequently seek ways to pass their assets to their loved ones without going through probate.  Although it can be avoided with proper estate planning, probate avoidance should be done carefully and at the advice of an attorney as using piecemeal strategies usually don’t work, and sometimes create bigger problems.  For example, consider using trusts in your estate planning.  See this article for more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-trusts-work-in-your-estate-plan/

Before considering whether you want to avoid probate, it is important to understand what the process is.  The Street’s recent article on this subject asks “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?” The article looks at the probate process and tries to put it in real-life terms.

Probate is the process by which an Executor (person put in charge of the Will) goes to court to prove the validity of the Will and their authority to be in charge of the estate.  I find it helpful to remember that the word probate is essentially Latin for “prove it.”

Every state’s process is different, but in Texas, the Executor starts by filing the Will and an application to probate along with other documents necessary to that case.  Next, there is a hearing before a probate judge.  The Executor and her attorney ask the judge to admit the Will to probate as the valid Will of the decedent and ask that the Executor be empowered to handle the decedent’s affairs as directed in the Will.

Once the Will is admitted to probate and the Executor agrees to serve, there are many tasks for them to complete.  They include the following:

  • Giving notice to the beneficiaries in the Will;
  • Giving notice to potential creditors of the estate;
  • Gathering, valuing and categorizing the decedent’s assets;
  • Prepare an inventory of those assets;
  • Paying off any of the deceased’s existing valid debts or fighting invalid ones;
  • Paying final taxes or expenses of the estate; and
  • Distributing the deceased’s property to those directed by the Will

The above are just the basic responsibilities of the Executor.  The probate process becomes more complicated when a creditor appears, the family disagrees, assets are entangled or cumbersome, such as land or business interests, or the Will was written without the aid of an attorney.  Even worse, it is hard for an Executor to locate assets in the first place!  This can make estates drag on months or even years.  I recently spoke with a client whose family is still going through a probate 10 years after the decedent has passed.

With all of that uncertainty, it is worth discussing your wishes with an experienced estate planning attorney who will be able to explain what strategies are used to avoid probate, how to remove certain assets from the process, or whether it needs to be avoided at all.  The key, as with all estate plans, is to find the option that fits your goals for you and your family.

Reference: The Street (July 29, 2019) “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?”

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How to Begin the Estate Planning Process

The estate planning process can be intimidating, but doesn’t have to be.  Start by listing your assets, who they go to and who to put in charge.

The hardest part of the estate planning process is  starting it.  About 17% of adults don’t think they  need  a will, believing that estate planning is only for  the very wealthy. In fact, clients frequently ask  whether they have enough money for an “estate.”    Sometimes they think state law will already directs their assets and they don’t need a plan.

However, the estate planning process is not about how much money someone has.  It is about planning for the assets you have, however much or little that may be, your wishes for those assets, yourself and your family.  It is about empowering you to make the choices you want for you and your family, not leaving it up to the state.  Even completing a few simple documents can make a huge difference in the future.

valuewalk.com’s recent article, “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process” notes that although the estate planning  process can seem overwhelming, taking inventory of assets is a terrific place to start.

Make a list of all your assets, including confirming how they are titled and whether there are beneficiaries named on the accounts, as well as the general value of the assets. Then, decide who you want to leave these assets to and who should be in charge of the process.  Our firm uses questionnaires as part of the estate planning process to help gather this information so we can focus on the issues most important to you.  I also did a video segment on Kevin’s Korner that walks through some of these issues as well.  See this link for the video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2M_-tBoSiU 

Drafting a will or a trust may be the most critical step in the estate planning process. These documents serve as the directions for how assets are to be distributed and who is responsible to do it.  A well-crafted will or trust can simplify the distribution of assets at your death, provide instructions to your family, and avoid disputes, unnecessary taxes and protect your beneficiaries from predators.

Without an estate plan in place, your assets will be distributed according to state law, rather than according to your wishes. Don’t assume state law leaves everything to your spouse!  Many people assume if they are married everything they own goes to their surviving spouse, but in many situations, that isn’t true.  For example, blended families, children outside of the marriage and some non-marital property.  Speak with your estate planning attorney about how these issues impact you.

Once you have an idea of your assets, beneficiaries and who to put in charge, the next step in the estate planning process is to meet with your estate planning attorney to review the information so they can make recommendations on the best way to accomplish your goals and highlight other issues to address.  Our firm offers free estate planning consultations, so please contact us today to start the estate planning process.

Reference: valuewalk.com (July 22, 2019) “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process”

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Estate Planning Avoids Problems With Selling the Family Home

Estate planning can help avoid problems when selling the family home.
Estate planning can help avoid problems when selling the family home.

Family members who are overtaken with grief are often unable to move forward with selling the family home after a parent has passed away. If the family home was not being well maintained while the parent was ill or aging, it might fall into further disrepair. When siblings have emotional attachments to the family home, things can get even more complicated. The difficulty of selling a parent’s home after their passing, depends to a large degree on what kind of estate planning the parent has done.

Much also depends on the family’s ability to ask for help and work with the right professionals in handling the sale of the home and managing the estate. The earlier the process begins, the better.

Parents can take steps while they are still living to ward off unnecessary complications. It may be a difficult conversation but having it will make the process easier and allow the family time to focus on their emotions, rather than the sale of property. This is why is is important to address what happens to the family home in an estate plan.

Here are a few pointers:

Make sure your parents have a will or a living trust. Many Americans do not. A survey from Caring.com found that only 42% of American adults had a will or a trust, and other estate planning documents.

After a parent passes away, there may be costs associated with maintaining the property and fixing any overdue repairs. Make sure to save all receipts and estimates.

Also, the Executor or successor Trustee under the parent’s estate planning documents should secure the property immediately. That may mean having the locks changed as soon as possible. Once an heir (or someone who believes they are or should be an heir) moves in, getting them out adds another layer of complication.

Be realistic about the value of the property. Have a real estate agent run a competitive market analysis on the property and consider an appraisal from a licensed appraisal. Avoid any accusations of impropriety—don’t hire a friend or family member. This needs to be all business.

To keep disagreements to a minimum, the Executor or successor Trustee should frequently update the heirs on how the sale of the house is progressing.

The biggest roadblock to selling the family house is often the emotional attachment of the children. It’s hard to clean out a family home, with all of the mementos, large and small. The longer the process takes, the harder it is.

This is not the time for any major renovations. There may be some cosmetic repairs that will make the house more marketable, but substantial improvements won’t impact the sale price. Remove all family belongings and show the house either empty or with professional staging to show its possibilities. Clean carpets, paint, if needed and have the landscaping cleaned up.

Keep tax consequences in mind. Depending on where the property is, where the heirs live and how much money is being inherited, there can be estate, inheritance and income taxes.  It is usually better to sell an inherited property as quickly as possible. When a property is inherited at death, the property value is “stepped up” to fair market value at the time of the owner’s death. That means that you can sell a property that was purchased many years ago, but not pay taxes on the value gained over those years.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about what will happen when the home needs to be sold. It may be better for parents to create a revocable trust in advance, which will direct the sale, allow a child to continue living in the home for a certain period of time, or instruct the one child who loves the home so much to buy it from the trust. Trusts are typically easier to administer after parents pass away and can be very helpful in preventing family fights.

Dealing with issues in advance through estate planning will help minimize conflicts after a parent passes away. Learn more avoiding estate planning mistakes.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 16, 2019) “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process”

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