How Important Is Avoiding Probate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if one of the goals of an estate plan is to avoid probate, regardless of the cost. The answer to that question is no, but a better question is the more even-tempered “Should I try to avoid probate?” In that case, the answer is “It depends.” A closer look at this question is provided in the recent article from The Daily Sentinel, “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Probate is not always a nightmare, depending upon where a decedent lived. Probate is a court process conducted by judges, who usually understand the difficulty executors and families are facing, and their support staff who genuinely care about the families involved. This is not everywhere, but your estate planning attorney will know what your local probate court is like. With that in mind, there are certain pitfalls to probate and there are situations where avoiding probate does make sense for your family.

In the case where it makes sense to avoid probate, whatever planning strategy is being used to avoid probate must be carefully evaluated. Does it make sense, or does it create further issues? Here’s an example of how this can backfire. A person provided their estate planning attorney with a copy of a beneficiary deed, which is a deed that transfers property to a designated person (called a “grantee”) immediately upon the death of the person who signed the deed (called a “grantor”).

The deed had been signed and recorded properly with the recorder’s office, just as a typical deed would be during the sale of a home. Note that a beneficiary deed does not transfer the title of ownership, until the grantor dies.

Here’s where things went bad. No one knew about the beneficiary deed, except for the grantor and the grantee. The remainder of the estate plan did not mention anything about the beneficiary deed. When the grantor died, ownership of the property was transferred to the grantee. However, the will contained conflicting instructions about the property and who was to inherit it.

Instead of avoiding probate, the grantor’s estate was tied up in court for more than a year. The family was torn apart, and the costs to resolve the matter were substantial.

Had the deceased simply relied upon the probate process or coordinated the transfer of ownership with his estate planning attorney, the intended person would have received the property and the family would have been spared the cost and stress. Sticking with the use of a last will and testament and the probate process would have protected everyone involved.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help determine the best approach for the family, with or without probate.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Oct. 3, 2020) “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife of Estate Planning

Trusts serve many different purposes in estate planning. They all have the intent to protect the assets placed within the trust. The type of trust determines what the protection is, and from whom it is protected, says the article “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms,” from The News Enterprise. To understand how trusts protect, start with the roles involved in a trust.

The person who creates the trust is called a “grantor” or “settlor.” The individuals or organizations receiving the benefit of the property or assets in the trust are the “beneficiaries.” There are two basic types of beneficiaries: present interest beneficiaries and “future interest” beneficiaries. The beneficiary, by the way, can be the same person as the grantor, for their lifetime, or it can be other people or entities.

The person who is responsible for the property within the trust is the “trustee.” This person is responsible for caring for the assets in the trust and following the instructions of the trust. The trustee can be the same person as the grantor, as long as a successor is in place when the grantor/initial trustee dies or becomes incapacitated. However, a grantor cannot gain asset protection through a trust, where the grantor controls the trust and is the principal recipient of the trust.

One way to establish asset protection during the lifetime of the grantor is with an irrevocable trust. Someone other than the grantor must be the trustee, and the grantor should not have any control over the trust. The less power a grantor retains, the greater the asset protection.

One additional example is if a grantor seeks lifetime asset protection but also wishes to retain the right to income from the trust property and provide a protected home for an adult child upon the grantor’s death. Very specific provisions within the trust document can be drafted to accomplish this particular task.

There are many other options that can be created to accomplish the specific goals of the grantor.

Some trusts are used to protect assets from taxes, while others ensure that an individual with special needs will be able to continue to receive needs-tested government benefits and still have access to funds for costs not covered by government benefits.

An estate planning attorney will have a thorough understanding of the many different types of trusts and which one would best suit each individual situation and goal.

Reference: The News Enterprise (July 25, 2020) “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms”