Something I am asked regularly is “what is probate?” Often, that question is followed up with “how do I avoid probate?” I always find it interesting when someone asks me the second question first, as I’m not sure why someone would want to avoid something without knowing what it is.
When one has passed away with assets to their name, the survivors are left to go through the court process to have an appropriate person appointed to transfer these assets to the rightful people, commonly referred to as the “beneficiaries.” The act of going to court to appoint to the appropriate person, notifying the next of kin, filing estate tax returns and overall winding-up the affairs for the deceased’s estate is what is commonly referred to as Probate.
Is Probate something which should be avoided? The answer to that, much like the answer to many questions that involve legal ramifications is: “it depends.” The factors that go into deciding whether or not probate is something which should be avoided are usually:
1) What assets did one own at the time of his death?
2) What are the specific laws of probate in the state in which the deceased resided and/or owned property during her lifetime?; and
3) Is privacy something which is important to the person doing the planning?
The assets one owned at the time of their death is an important factor because different assets are transferred differently. For certain assets (real estate, for example), state laws may require the Executor or Administrator (the person winding up the affairs) to jump through more hoops than others. Some assets may require complicated valuations as well. Avoiding probate in such cases can simplify or bypass altogether the court process of transferring these assets to the beneficiaries.
Some states have stricter probate laws than others. The more strict the probate laws in a particular jurisdiction, the more costs & hassle the Executors and Administrators may have to endure in order to wind up the affairs and get the assets to the beneficiaries.
Finally, much like most court actions, probate is generally a public process. That means that anyone (nosy neighbors, business partners and disgruntled family members who may not have received anything by way of inheritance) all have the same access to the public record documents that are involved in probate.
If one has determined that probate avoidance is a goal after weighing all the factors, the planning process can continue to determine the best strategy to achieve the goal.