When someone dies owning property or other assets individually, those assets become their estate. If the deceased person (or decedent) dies without leaving any instructions about what to do with their assets, the estate gets handled through a legal process called probate. The probate process relies on state-specific laws to handle the settlement of an estate, rather than the decedents personal wishes or other considerations.
For most people, it’s a good idea to avoid the probate process altogether. Since probate is handled by the state court system, settling an estate this way can be a lengthy process. Most probate cases take at least 9 months to be resolved, and it is not uncommon for cases to take 2 years or more. During this time, the estates potential heirs need special permission to withdraw bank funds or make adjustments to physical assets such as properties. Without access to the decedents funds, friends, and family members are often left to pay for funeral expenses and other immediate bills out of their own pockets. The larger the estate, the longer the probate process normally takes, and waiting for approval to sell or manage various assets can extend the process even further.
Probate is also a very expensive way to settle an estate. Cases handled via probate are subject to substantial legal fees, often including filing and settlement fees. Though these costs vary by state, its not uncommon for state filing fees in a probate case to exceed $300.00. Accounting and other administration fees may also be applied to estates settled in probate, since part of the process is to assess the value of estate assets. These fees are charged against the estate before any inheritances are awarded, thus lowering the final amount passed on to heirs. Since probate proceedings are held in the public court system, all settlements become part of a public record. Anyone can look up the distribution of assets from a probate estate settlement, finding out exactly what and how much each heir received.
Avoiding probate will allow you to preserve your assets and follow your final directives, while also keeping your estate settlement private. All it takes to keep your estate out of probate is proper estate planning. You do not need to be wealthy to leave an estate behind, or to protect it for your heirs. Regardless of your financial situation, there are estate planning options and tools you can use. Though there are some costs associated with preparing legal directives such as trusts and wills, they are far less expensive than those typically incurred through probate settlement. Not only does estate planning protect your assets, it can also help to limit the estate taxes your heirs will pay.
Consult a knowledgeable estate planning attorney to discuss your options and come up with a plan to preserve your legacy. Your attorney will be able to explain the various types of estate planning methods, and how they relate to your assets. Since estate laws vary by state, its very important to find an estate planning attorney that is licensed to practice in your state. Start by contacting your state bar association (or visiting their website), as they will have an up-to-date listing of estate planning attorneys. Its also a good idea to ask friends, family or colleagues to recommend a local estate planning attorney they know and trust.
If you are in the Chesterfield, MO area, give us a call at 636-394-0009 or you can contact us and we will be happy to discuss your situation.