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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Legacy Assurance Plan Article | Avoiding Probate: A Variety of Tools Can Help You Reach Your Goal

Summary: Many people have avoiding probate as one of their estate planning goals, for good reason. Many of those desiring to avoid probate have become somewhat familiar with revocable living trusts, which are an effective means for avoiding probate. However, multiple other tools exist for avoiding probate, including pay-on-death or transfer-on-death financial accounts, life insurance, annuities and, in some states, transfer-on-death deeds. Each option has a unique set of advantages and limitations. A qualified legal professional can help you decide which is right for you.

Many people who have given thought to estate planning have heard about the numerous benefits of avoiding probate. While some states have created types of probate administration that are faster and easier, other states' probate processes are almost always long, expensive and exhausting for your loved ones. Probate can also cost you privacy. Anyone interested now knows extensive details about the estates of famous celebrities like James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman because those men did not have an estate plan that avoided probate.

One well-known means for avoiding probate is the revocable living trust. These trusts can be great tools for accomplishing your probate avoidance goals, because the trust serves as a legal entity that (if all the proper steps are taken) owns assets for you, meaning that, when you die, your wealth is managed through the trust instead of your probate estate. Living trusts can also provide other benefits, such as ensuring the continuity of the management of your assets if you become mentally incapacitated. With a trust, your successor trustee can, in most cases, seamlessly take over these management duties without the need for a guardianship or conservatorship court proceeding, which can be stressful and time-consuming.

But, did you know that revocable living trusts are not the only way to avoid probate? In some cases, you may be able to own millions of dollars of assets and not need a trust to avoid probate. Life insurance policies and other insurance products (like annuities) have death beneficiary designations on them. Many bank, investment or other financial accounts can be structured to have "pay on death" or "transfer on death" designations placed on them. Some states have transfer-on-death deeds, which allow you place a death beneficiary on real estate that you own in those states. Other states recognize the enhanced life estate deed, which is somewhat similar to a transfer-on-death deed in that the property covered by that deed passes, upon the death of the owner, to a named beneficiary without the need of a probate administration. In each of these cases, the process of placing those assets into your beneficiaries' hands is simple, requiring only the death beneficiary paperwork, proof of the beneficiary's identity and a copy of the death certificate.

These death beneficiary accounts are not without their own risks, though. They will not provide any protection if you become mentally incapacitated. Additionally, if you desire to make major changes to the distribution of your wealth (perhaps due to a divorce or remarriage,) you must take care update each individual beneficiary designation. 

In the end, only a trained estate planning legal professional, working in partnership with you, can help you decide which path works best for your goals and needs.  

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