In the conventional wisdom, the probate process does not tend to carry a positive association: it is known for being costly, time-consuming, and stressful. As a result, many people who have experienced the probate process following the death of a loved one want to avoid it in the future and might feel motivated to help other family members avoid it through intentional estate planning.
However, there is quite a bit of confusion that still surrounds the probate process. What exactly does probate mean? How does the process work? Is it generally good for families who want to see their deceased family members’ wishes honored? If not, is it possible to avoid the process? If so, how?
Here, we discuss the probate process, explaining what it is, how it works, and what you can do now to protect your estate – or your loved ones’ estates – in the long term.
What is Probate?
When a person dies, everything he owns, from the cash in his wallet to the money he invested, is considered a part of his estate. Probate is the legal process of settling this estate by paying off the decedent’s debts and distributing his assets.
The probate process is designed to effectively manage estates in cases in which the decedents failed to provide specific directives. It can be lengthy, often taking more than twelve months to complete. From court costs to attorneys’ fees, it can be expensive. And for those who wish to keep their family affairs private, it’s important to know that matters of probate are public record: once an estate is probated, anyone can access information about it, including who inherited the decedent’s property. As such, for many family members mourning a loss, the probate process can make an already emotional and trying event more challenging.
How Does Probate Work?
Upon a person’s death, a personal representative will be designated to manage the estate. This person may have been named in the decedent’s will. If the decedent did not designate anyone, another qualified individual – dictated by State law – will be appointed. The personal representative will submit an application to the court along with a preliminary inventory of the estate, a certified copy of the deceased’s death certificate, and a copy of the will (if applicable). The personal representative will pay a fee to open the estate and must take an oath to carry out certain responsibilities to settle the estate.
During the probate process, the personal representative will fulfill several duties, including the following (among others):
- Filing an inventory all of the decedent’s assets;
- Paying any of the estate’s outstanding debts;
- Providing notice to known creditors;
- Filing taxes for the decedent;
- Setting up a bank account to pay for any expenses incurred by the estate, such as debts and funeral costs;
- Selling assets to cover debts if needed;
- Distributing assets to known heirs; and
- Preparing a final accounting to close the estate.
Not all assets are subject to probate. If the decedent named a beneficiary for an asset in a will or by some other instrument, generally, that asset will not pass through probate.
Additionally, North Carolina law specifically designates certain items that do not pass through probate, for instance, life insurance proceeds with a named beneficiary, securities held in transfer-on-death accounts, and jointly-owned property (when the joint owner still lives), among others.
If I Want to Avoid the Probate Process, Can I Set up My Estate Plan to Do So?
Proactively setting up an estate plan to avoid probate can lighten the burden that the process often imposes. Here are a few ways to do so.
Name a beneficiary for your accounts. The most straightforward way to avoid probate is to ensure there is a named beneficiary on all of your – or your loved ones’ – accounts. This should include all retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, bank accounts, and insurance policies, as well as Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. Failure to name a specific beneficiary will result in accounts being probated upon the account holder’s death.
Protect your assets. Naming a beneficiary through a POD or TOD clause will only protect accounts, not personal effects. Living trusts are a tool that can be used to keep any asset out of probate. Bank accounts, real estate, or other personal property like a vehicle can be placed in a living trust. Ownership of the property will be transferred to you as trustee and upon your death, your successor will take control of the trust and distribute the property as dictated by the terms of the trust without going through probate.
Consider a joint tenancy. This option frequently applies to married couples, business partners, or other individuals who share ownership rights in property. Property held in joint tenancy does not pass through probate. Instead, the surviving owner automatically takes full ownership of the shared property.
Designate an heir and keep your assets simple. Estates limited to $20,000 in personal property can be settled through a simplified process that does not require formal probate. Additionally, a surviving spouse stands to inherit all the decedent’s assets and the estate’s value is $30,000 or less, the estate can be settled without probate. If the surviving spouse is the only heir, a simplified probate process known as “summary administration” will apply in place of traditional probate.
Contact Our Experienced Estate Planning Attorneys
When it comes to securing your assets – or protecting your loved ones’ assets – an estate plan can eliminate much of the burden, cost, and uncertainty that can come from relying on the administrative process. At Wilson Ratledge, our attorneys regularly assist our clients in preparing estate plans that ensure their desires and wishes will be met. For assistance setting up your estate plan, contact one of our experienced North Carolina estate planning attorneys at 919-787-7711 or via our contact form below. We look forward to serving you.