Although probate can be time consuming and expensive, one of its biggest downsides is that it’s public — anyone who’s interested can find out what assets you owned and how they’re being distributed after your death. The public nature of probate may also draw unwanted attention from disgruntled family members who may challenge the disposition of your assets, as well as from other unscrupulous parties.

The good news is that by implementing the right estate planning strategies, you can keep much or even all of your estate out of probate.

Probate, defined

Probate is a legal procedure in which a court establishes the validity of your will, determines the value of your estate, resolves creditors’ claims, provides for the payment of taxes and other debts, and transfers assets to your heirs.

Is probate ever desirable? Sometimes. Under certain circumstances, you might feel more comfortable having a court resolve issues involving your heirs and creditors. Another possible advantage is that probate places strict time limits on creditor claims and settles claims quickly.

Choose the right strategies

There are several tools you can use to avoid (or minimize) probate. (You’ll still need a will — and probate — to deal with guardianship of minor children, disposition of personal property and certain other matters.)

The simplest ways to avoid probate involve designating beneficiaries or titling assets in a manner that allows them to be transferred directly to your beneficiaries outside your will. So, for example, be sure that you have appropriate, valid beneficiary designations for assets such as life insurance policies, annuities and retirement plans.

For assets such as bank and brokerage accounts, look into the availability of “payable on death” (POD) or “transfer on death” (TOD) designations, which allow these assets to avoid probate and pass directly to your designated beneficiaries. However, keep in mind that while the POD or TOD designation is permitted in most states, not all financial institutions and firms make this option available.

For homes or other real estate — as well as bank and brokerage accounts and other assets — some people avoid probate by holding title with a spouse or child as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or as “tenants by the entirety.” But this has three significant drawbacks: 1) Once you retitle property, you can’t change your mind, 2) holding title jointly gives the joint owner some control over the asset and exposes it to his or her creditors, and 3) there may be undesirable tax consequences.

A handful of states permit TOD deeds, which allow you to designate a beneficiary who’ll succeed to ownership of real estate after you die. TOD deeds allow you to avoid probate without making an irrevocable gift or exposing the property to your beneficiary’s creditors.

Discuss your options

Because of probate’s public nature, avoiding the process to the extent possible is a goal of many estate plans. Implementing the proper strategies in your plan can protect your privacy and save your family time and money. Contact us with questions or to discuss your options.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

You’ve likely spent a lot of time working with your advisor to plan your estate. While documents such as your will, various trusts and a power of attorney are essential, consider adding a “road map” to your plan.

Plot it out

Essentially, the road map is an informal letter or other document that guides your family in understanding and executing your estate plan and ensuring that your wishes are carried out.

Your road map should include, among other things:

  • The location of your will, living and other trusts, tax returns and records, powers of attorney, insurance policies, deeds, automobile titles, and other important documents,
  • A personal financial statement that lists stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, vehicles and other assets, as well as information about mortgages, credit cards and other debts,
  • An inventory of digital assets — such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, and social media accounts — including login credentials or a description of arrangements made to provide your representative with access,
  • The location of family heirlooms or other valuable personal property,
  • A list of important professional contacts, including your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent and financial advisors,
  • Computer passwords and home security system codes,
  • Safe combinations and the location of any safety deposit boxes and keys, and
  • Information about funeral arrangements or burial wishes.

Explain your thinking

The road map may also be a good place to explain to your loved ones the reasoning behind certain estate planning decisions. Perhaps you’re distributing your assets unequally, distributing specific assets to specific heirs or placing certain restrictions on an heir’s entitlement to trust distributions. There are many good reasons for using these strategies, but it’s important for your family to understand your motives to avoid hurt feelings or disputes.

Finally, like other estate planning documents, your road map won’t be effective unless your family knows where to find it, so it’s a good idea to leave it with a trusted advisor and a copy in a place where your heirs will likely find it.

© 2021 Covenant CPA