When I work with clients, my goal is often very simple: Avoiding probate. However, I believe it’s also important to have a backup plan that includes providing for probate in the most efficient way possible. In order to do this, having an understanding of the different probate cases is important.
For adults unable to make their own decisions or for minors, the court may appoint someone to be in charge of their money through a conservatorship. The court may also appoint someone to be in charge of their physical well-being through a guardianship. These proceedings are only avoidable if an adult had the mental capacity and executed a power of attorney in advance. For minors or adults with special needs, a conservatorship or guardianship will be required. For these situations, a will is the only place to legally designate a future guardian and conservator.
On the other side of probate is when a person passes with assets left in their name alone and without beneficiaries. In these situations, there are a few different proceedings in Missouri.
After a year has passed since a person’s death, the heirs may also file a determination of heirship. Another simplified proceeding, this simply produces a court order effectively giving title to the legal heirs. Because fewer documents are required than other proceedings, this can give access quicker and generally less expensively. Unfortunately, the major downside to this probate process is the assets are given to the legal heirs under intestate law which may not have been the intention. In addition, the court requires a list of all assets going through the determination of heirship and would not give access to unknown assets.
Another option is the small estate affidavit. For estates under $40,000.00, this includes subtracting debt, the court may issue a certificate based on this affidavit. This allows the person signing the small estate to collect the listed assets. While this is a simplified option giving access to assets often within a few months, you must know and have statements for the assets. Because there are normally fewer documents require, it again is often also much less expensive than other probate proceedings. In addition, some counties will allow an individual to file these affidavits without an attorney. Unfortunately, St. Louis County does require an attorney.
Finally, the last option is a full probate proceeding. If a company says you need “Letters” this is what they are referring to. The proceeding begins by issuing the Personal Representative (or Executor) Letters of Administration or Letters of Testamentary. These Letters allow the Personal Representative to call companies to gather information and assets for the heirs or devisees of a will. Generally, these proceedings will take a minimum of 7 months and can take years. It also gives an open court case for creditors. It is most likely to be the most expensive, but if the assets exceed $40,000, it has been less than a year since the death, or there are unknown assets, this is the only option.
So, how does this effect an estate plan? For small estate affidavits and a full probate proceedings wills can be admitted. However, a will can actually (nominally) increase the court fees. But a will can also waive bond (another expense) which may not always be done otherwise. If a specific person should be appointed Personal Representative or intestate law is not the desired outcome, a will is always going to be necessary. But knowing the different methods of probate and potential fees should also help decide a backup to the main estate plan.