I dwell a lot on probate because while it can go smoothly, it’s generally expensive, time consuming, and most importantly easy to avoid. So let’s talk about how to avoid it.
First, what most people don’t think about is that probate can also include when a person is incapacitated. If a person is physically or mentally unable to make his or her own decisions the court gets involved and appoints a person to do so (along with a long list of necessary steps). This part is extremely easy to avoid through a durable power of attorney. A durable power of attorney allows someone you choose to take control of your financial, medical, and legal matters. A very simple solution and legal document to prevent the need for court.
But of course, more people think of losing a loved one when they talk about probate. Any assets remaining in a deceased person’s name alone will need to go to court and through probate (even if there is a will). But there are a few ways to avoid probate:
Gifting – If there is an asset a person is no longer using or is comfortable no longer having control of, simply giving it away and re-titling the asset is an option. Depending on the type and amount of the gift, there can be tax consequences, so I always suggest talking to an accountant before gifting property.
Joint Titling – By putting another persons’ name on an asset, that person may automatically get the asset when the other passes. This is often times why a wife may not need to go through probate when her husband passes. However, there are multiple forms of joint ownership in Missouri and if the correct one is not used, then probate may still be necessary. And because putting another person’s name on an asset can also be a gift there may be tax consequences as well.
Because of the potential pitfalls with the other two, I rarely recommend them. Instead I focus on two different options:
Beneficiaries – Almost any asset can have a beneficiary. Retirement plans and life insurance ask you very directly, but you can do the same with vehicles, bank accounts, and homes. They might be referred to as “Payable on Death” (POD), “Transfer on Death” (TOD), or a beneficiary deed (real estate). Essentially, all of these allow someone to get any asset upon a person’s death without needing probate court. There are some limitations as well on beneficiaries. This could be a problem with a beneficiary passing first, incomplete or lost forms, or putting a minor as a beneficiary.
Trusts – When beneficiaries are not enough, trusts can also avoid probate. Again though, this comes down to titling. It’s so important once a trust document has been signed that the assets are actually put in the name of the trust. A trust allows more control over how or when the assets can be used. They work well for minors or for preserving assets across generations. But most importantly, a trust implemented correctly can be the easiest way to avoid probate.
Whether through a trust or another method, probate should be completely avoidable for most families. It’s something I advise my clients on every free estate planning consultation and it’s something you should consider as well.