Three Simple Tips to Avoid Probate

Generally, most people are familiar with the term “probate”. They know that it has something to do with Wills and happens after someone dies. However, what I have found in my 27 years as a practicing attorney, is that it is quite often a mysterious term and that there are many misconceptions about what the probate process actually is and what it entails.

Often, I have clients tell me that they want to have a Will so that they can avoid probate. The reality is, the only way that a Will is effective is if it is submitted for probate. Probate is just the general term used to describe the whole process that happens after an individual dies so that someone can be appointed to wrap up the affairs of the decedent. If there’s a Will, whomever is named as the executor or personal representative, is formally recognized by the court as the person authorized to handle the affairs of the estate, such as, paying bills and distributing property on behalf of the estate. If there is no Will, but there are assets to be distributed, someone such as a spouse or child can apply to be appointed as the personal representative of the estate to do the same things as if there was a Will appointing an executor or personal representative. However, instead of relying upon the Will for a determination of how the property is distributed, the distribution will be based upon Florida intestate law.

Countless times, I have been contacted by a family member who has lost a loved one that needs to get access to funds of the decedent to pay funeral bills or just to resolve a life insurance claim or distribute funds in a bank account. Generally, they call me after they have been advised that they do not have the right to access an account at a bank or brokerage firm as they have not been appointed by the court. In that case, they will have to retain an attorney and go through the probate process to be appointed as the personal representative.

Probate is one of the unique areas of the law where you generally cannot represent yourself. Sometimes the funds to be accessed may not even exceed the costs to go through the probate process. Therefore, I want to share three simple tips with you that can help you avoid forcing your loved ones to go through the probate process if your assets are limited or, if you have a loved one with limited assets, so you can assist them in planing accordingly.

Bank accounts: Sometimes I will meet with family members of the deceased loved one where the only asset is a bank account and the bank account is only in the decedent’s name. The only way to get access to the funds is to go through the probate process. However, the time delay and the expenses incurred for filing fees and legal fees could simply have been avoided if the person, while alive, named a beneficiary of that account to be paid upon the death of the account holder. If this procedure is followed, instead of having to go through the probate process, the beneficiary of the account merely needs to present a death certificate to the bank to obtain access to funds.

Life insurance policies:
Generally, life insurance policies name a beneficiary. However, sometimes they name “my estate” as the beneficiary. If that is the case, in order to get access to the funds, someone must be appointed as the personal representative of the estate to distribute the funds according to a Will, or if there is no Will, then pursuant to Florida intestacy law. A simple way to avoid this is to make sure that your estate is not named as beneficiary under the policy and to review your policies on an annual basis to make sure you have proper beneficiaries named. If a spouse has passed away, then you may want to update the policy to name your children or other beneficiaries such as a nonprofit organization or church. Again, completing a simple change of beneficiary form is much easier than forcing your family to have to go through the probate process if your life insurance policy is your only asset.

Brokerage accounts:
I am often surprised that clients are unaware of the opportunity to name beneficiaries on their brokerage accounts. Quite often I have senior clients who may have sold off all their assets and are living in an assisted living facility and their only asset is a brokerage account. Again, because of their failure to name a beneficiary on the account, the family has to go through the expense and time delays associated with probate. If you do have a brokerage account, you should contact your financial adviser to discuss the naming of beneficiaries on that account. Generally you can name an initial beneficiary and contingent beneficiary.

Although there are many other probate avoidance mechanisms that can get quite complex, especially when looking to avoid tax consequences for estates over $5 million, quite often these three tips will help a large number of individuals. Plan to review your assets and talk to your parents about their assets and what they have done to avoid the probate process.

While it’s a topic that no one likes to talk about, once someone has passed, it’s too late and nothing can be done. If you would like a complimentary consultation regarding your current estate planning or if you do not have an estate plan and would like to learn more, please give us a call at 941-206-3700 to schedule an appointment or to request our FREE Special Report on Five Tips to Avoid a Family Tragedy.

Contact an Estate Planning Attorney

If you have a situation as we described in this article and have questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact us to answer your estate planning legal questions.
Attorney Mark Martella, Esq.
18501 Murdock Circle, Suite 304
Port Charlotte, FL 33948