I meet with most of my estate planning clients three times and in each of those meetings I (try to) emphasize that an estate plan is truly controlled by how assets are titled. Of course the legal documents are important, I wouldn’t have a job if they weren’t. But the documents I create don’t mean anything unless we know how the assets are titled.
This is because it is really how an asset is titled that determines where the asset goes and if it will have to go through probate.
If there is a co-owner with a right of survivorship (this is generally called Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship or JTWROS), then the property passes to the co-owner. This is also where trusts fall. In order for the trust to control, the title must be in the name of the trust and the trust must be the owner. The new owner under this ownership will have control and ownership completely outside of probate.
If there isn’t a trust as the owner or there isn’t a co-owner, then you look to see if there are beneficiaries. If there are beneficiaries, then they then own the property. And when I say beneficiaries, I also include Transfers on Death (TODs) and Payable on Death (PODs) designations. Again, these beneficiaries take ownership without probate.
It is only after ownership or beneficiaries that a will would control. If there are no co-owners and no beneficiaries, then whomever would get the property under the will is the new owner. However, a will must go through probate to transfer the property to the new owner.
And finally, if there are no co-owners, no beneficiaries, and no will, then intestate law controls and heirs get the asset. But again, the heirs would have to go through probate to gain access to the asset.
So, do me a favor, if you or a loved one has assets you’re worried about going through probate, CHECK HOW THEY’RE TITLED!