This week I gave a presentation to a group of professionals I work with on a regular basis. After the meeting, several came up to me concerned that their plans wouldn’t accomplish what they thought it would. So, in the hopes of saving your family heartache and money, I thought I would the main point of that presentation.
When clients hire me to do an estate plan, my job is to avoid probate in the most cost efficient manner with as little conflict as possible. There’s two situations where probate is possible. First, is when a person is no longer able to make decisions for themselves.
If incapacitated and a person does not have any documents in place, the probate court gets involved in a guardianship or conservatorship. In these cases, the court appoints someone to make financial and medical decisions for you. That person must get court approval for any purchases and must make annual reports. Generally, in a time when they must already take care of a loved one, the court is the last thing they need to be dealing with.
This is very easy to avoid through a power of attorney or a trust. Either document may control if you’re incapacitated, but there are two main differences. First, a power of attorney will only control what is in your individual name, while a trust will only control what is in the trusts name. Also, a power of attorney ends upon death, while a trust may also control what happens after you pass.
As such, I normally recommend non-probate transfers to be used to avoid probate upon death. This is a fancy term for joint titling, beneficiaries, or a trust. There are different benefits to each one, but generally a trust is the “best” option, while beneficiaries are “better”, and a will is “good.”
A trust is the “best” option because it allows for control over the assets while avoiding probate. Trusts are also very adaptable, permitting one to only change the trust document instead of beneficiary designations when life changes (i.e. changing beneficiaries, beneficiary percentages, and any restrictions on assets). It also can set up different layers of contingencies for beneficiaries and often provides the least amount of conflict between family members. It’s great for complicated families or when minors are involved. I also recommend it when real estate is involved, because in Missouri, if a person or people own real estate their spouses must also sign off on any transaction involving real estate. So, for families with multiple children, it’s a good way to limit the amount of people involved in any decision regarding that property.
Beneficiaries are the “better” choice because they avoid probate. But I generally only recommend them, with liquid assets, limited family members, and responsible beneficiaries.
A will is the “good” option because it goes through probate. This is necessary for families who do not want intestate law to apply and for minor guardianship. But because it goes through probate, there will be court and attorney fees and I rarely recommend it by itself.
So, in the holiday spirit save heartache and money for your family by checking the beneficiaries on your assets with this checklist!