By Matthew A. Quick Avoiding probate seems to be the goal in everyone's mind and, most often, for good reason. Although probate may be necessary at times, it can be time consuming, public and costly (with probate court fees and costs and publication fees alone averaging approximately $800 for an estate with property worth $200,000).
Remember, probate is the court process of distributing the property of someone's estate (what someone owns at death). If there is a will, the probate process distributes property pursuant to it. If there is not a will, the probate process distributes property pursuant to state law. A common misconception is that a will allows an estate to avoid probate. In fact, the opposite is true. In order for a will to be used, it MUST go through the probate process.
There are two main alternatives to relying on probate (that is relying on only a will or nothing at all). The first is the use of a trust, which is an agreement that requires a trustee to hold property for the use and benefit of someone else. Trusts are a great utility for families with loved ones that have special needs or minor children, because of certain protections and distribution provisions that are offered. However, sometimes a trust is not necessary.
If someone has basic wishes for distribution of his or her estate, designating beneficiaries on the titles of the property he or she wish to distribute is the effective and efficient alternative. Beneficiary designation works in the following way: as for a deposit account (checking, savings, investment), a "Transfer on Death" provision can be added allowing the owner of the account to give the funds of the account to another upon his or her death; as for a house, a deed can be written to create an interest for someone else upon death by use of a Lady Bird provision (a provision that states the owner shall own the real estate for his or her life and do with it whatever he or she pleases, but if the owner continues to own the real estate upon death, the real estate shall be transferred to certain beneficiaries); as for vehicles, a form can be filed with the Secretary of State by a spouse or heir (for more info on this click here); and personal property may be transferred before death or entrusted to someone to help distribute it after death.
Ask your attorney to help because beneficiary designation can be a bit daunting, but, if done correctly, it can save time and money.
NOTE: a will should always be prepared as a safety net, even if a trust or beneficiary designation exists. If an estate is planned to avoid probate, and organized appropriately, the will is not used.