Am I Responsible for My Parent’s Debts?

When a parent dies, the adult children often ask if they are responsible in any way for the debt that is left behind. The quick and easy answer is, no, you are generally not responsible for the debts of your loved one who passed away. There are exceptions however, and it is important that you take the next steps properly after someone passes to ensure that you are not liable for any debts they may have. In many cases a parent or other loved one who passes away has debts that exceed their liabilities. Even if you are named as an executor in a will, no one can require you to administer the estate, pay their debts, or otherwise deal with estate assets. However, there may be sound reasons why you want to do so. Once you are sworn in as an executor, you are required to handle the assets according to law, and you are liable if you mishandle assets.

You are only responsible for handling the assets correctly.

In many cases when we look at the assets and debts of a person who has passed away, we find that their estate is essentially bankrupt—that is, that there are not enough assets to sell in order to pay off any debts of the estate. Typical debts of someone who has passed away include medical bills, credit card bills, past due rent, or mortgage and foreclosure debts. Of course, if there are assets and they have any value, we can sometimes salvage the estate.

By opening an estate, you are not personally liable for more than what is in the estate. As a very simple example, suppose this is the estate:

            $60,000 Assets

            $100,000 Debts

In this example, if you open the estate, you are only responsible to liquidate the $60,000 in assets (that is, sell the house, stocks, car, etc. that makes up that $60,000 in value) and pay the debts you are able to (more on that below). You are not responsible to personally pay for the other $40,000 in debt as long as you follow the law.

How do you decide which debts to pay?

Deciding which debts to pay is not difficult in most cases because the law already provides for what order creditors are to be paid off. As an executor, your job (in consultation with an estate attorney) is to ensure that the top-priority creditors are paid. As long as you do that in the proper order, you are not liable for the debts that are not paid.

Why would I open an estate if I’m just going to pay off some debt?

The advantage to opening an estate that will not pay all of its debts is that we can pay the executor a fee (this is a top-priority debt) and reimburse family for funeral expenses (also a top-priority debt). A good estate attorney can help you to ensure that you are following the rules and that you will not be personally liable in the end.

However, if you open probate and misappropriate the assets or if you take assets for yourself out of probate and chose not to pay all the creditors, then you will be liable for the amount of the property that was misappropriated. You can also be liable to the Department of Revenue if you have failed to pay the taxes on the assets involved. This is why it is important to consult with a probate attorney.

Guarantors and Co-signers are still liable.

Of course, we should also take note that an individual’s death does not change your obligation to pay any debt you are a co-signer on. If you co-signed on the decedent’s student loans or their car loan, you will still be responsible for that debt, personally. This is true whether you open an estate or not—but it may be an additional reason to open an estate and see if estate assets can lawfully be used to pay off that debt.

Finally, children can be liable for misappropriating their parents’ assets during their lifetime if those assets should have been used to pay for medical care. The Department of Human Services sometimes seeks contribution for costs that were incurred by the government for medical care if the children misused or failed to preserve assets in certain situations. Once again, this would be true regardless of whether an estate is opened.

Conclusion: Call a probate attorney at Cornerstone Law Firm today

As with many legal issues, there are many complications that can arise out of an estate. If you have any particular concerns or want to get in contact with an attorney regarding an estate, give us a call at Cornerstone Law Firm.

Adopting your Stepchildren

The Brady Bunch was meant to be a humorous show about the difficulties of merging two families with kids. But 50 years after the show debuted, there isn’t really any joke about it. Merged families are the norm, and for parents working to ensure that their kids feel part of a new family unit, there can be unique challenges.

When you’re acting as a stepparent, you’re familiar with the challenges of providing parental guidance in a substitute role. If the child’s biological parent is absent or unknown, the stepparent usually feels more free to take an active role.

Many stepparents choose to go the extra mile in adopting their stepchild. The adoption process can be sticky, but here are four things to keep in mind if you choose to adopt a stepchild.

1. For estate planning purposes, the stepchild is now your child.

If your will leaves things split “between my children,” this includes both biological and adopted children. You can, of course, disinherit (or limit the inheritance of) a specific child. This means that you may still adopt a child without allowing them the same inheritance as your children. For stepparents adopting a child, this often isn’t a concern. If you want to treat them like your kids during life, you may wish to treat them like your kids after death. But you should still be aware that, absent clear language in your will, the adopted stepchild becomes your “issue” for all legal purposes. And if you don’t have a will, the adopted stepchild will inherit by default. (And if you don’t have a will—get one!).

2. Adoption will require the biological parent you’re “replacing” to terminate parental rights.

In the event that the “original” parent is still involved in the child’s life, that parent will have to terminate parental rights for you to adopt your stepchild. Your spouse’s co-parent may have good reasons to agree to terminate rights, however. For example, the co-parent who terminates their rights will not have to pay child support and will not have obligations as a parent. If the co-parent is far behind on child support to begin with, it may benefit all parties for the stepparent to adopt.

If the biological parent you are replacing has passed away or was never known, then the process is simpler. You can step into that role with the consent of the biological parent.

3. In the event of a divorce, both of you will have custody rights.

One more thing you should consider when adopting your stepchild is that you will acquire legal rights as a parent. This means you can make decisions about the child’s schooling, rearing, discipline, religious instruction and more. In the event that you and the child’s parent separate, you’re entitled to custody rights the same way a biological parent would be. An adoption is a permanent mechanism, and it doesn’t dissolve just because the parental relationship does.

4. Adopting a stepchild can help the stepchild feel part of a “real” family.

Not every child will feel the same way about being adopted by a stepparent. There can be a feeling of loss for the child who loses connection, even in an intangible way, with the “original” biological parent. And the adoption by a stepparent can change the relationship from a more “fun-loving” relationship to one that is more serious. But many children express happiness about the family situation normalizing. Some stepchildren want the opportunity to see their stepparent as their “real” parent and claim a sense of normalcy in the process.

Obviously, depending on the child’s age, it’s important to speak with the stepchild together as a family and see how he or she will feel about this step. A child’s preferences should not be disregarded lightly, and it might make sense to let the process take some time as all of you adjust to the idea of an adoption before taking the steps to formalize the relationship.

Conclusion: Adopting a stepchild is a big decision

In conclusion, adopting your stepchild can be a beautiful and loving thing to do. It also requires some effort to accomplish. Most importantly, everyone involved in the situation needs to understand that it is permanent. If you’re considering adopting a stepchild, call the family law attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm so we can help you through the process and help you consider all of the options. Our attorneys love adoptions, and we’re here to help you figure out the process.

What can I do with a short certificate?

When you obtain a short certificate for an estate, what does it empower you to do? The short certificate is the document granted by the Register of Wills in a county to the Executor of an estate. The Executor, having named and granted these “letters of administration” is given power to sell assets belonging to the deceased person, pay their bills in the proper order, list real estate for sale, negotiate with creditors, give notice to beneficiaries and more.

For many people, the first interaction after a loved one’s death that gives rise to the need for a short certificate is the bank. Having gone to the bank to try to get their family member’s bank account they hear that the bank needs this short certificate to obtain the money. Short certificates must be honored by banks, who accept them as proof from a court that you are the designated person to deal with the assets after death and ensure that the creditors are paid. When you take the short certificate in and submit it to the bank, they can give you a check to be placed in an estate account. Often, a bank will offer to open the estate account there if you don’t already have one set up.

Additionally, if listing a house, the realtor will need the short certificate to prove that you have the right to list it. This will also be required at closing when a buyer’s agent will need to see it to verify that you have the proper authority to transfer title to the home. Once again, the short certificate is the only way to prove conclusively that you are the proper administrator of the estate.

Most creditors will accept payment even if you don’t have a short certificate, after all, who doesn’t want to get a check? But short certificates are still important when negotiating with creditors for a lessor claim. In some cases, not all creditors can be paid, and the Executor will be called upon to pay debts in their proper order and to attempt to reasonably compromise some debts to ensure that more creditors are able to get money. Please note that this should be done with the guidance of counsel, as there are several legal issues that can arise if you don’t handle this correctly. Nonetheless, the short certificate is the document that demonstrates your authority to settle the claims on behalf of the estate.

Why is it called a short certificate? What is the short certificate “short” for? Technically, the short certificate is a one-page version of the Grant of Letters, which is a long document issued by the Register of Wills. In most cases, the Registers of Wills don’t even issue these documents anymore. They are kept on file in case one is needed, but the short certificate is all that is used in practice. The “short certificate” is the stand in for the longer court order.

Opening an estate comes with many responsibilities and also empowers the Executor to make decisions on behalf of the estate. But in closing, here’s an important point: opening an estate is not always the right decision. In fact, in some cases it is a major mistake. There are tax consequences to how estates are handled and there can be personal liability on the Executor who opens the estate. Accordingly, it is strongly recommended that you seek legal counsel if you’re thinking of opening an estate for a loved one who has passed away.

If you have questions about these issues, or about how to use the short certificate once you’ve obtained it, call Cornerstone Law Firm for a consultation so that we can help you take your next steps.

The Right of Sepulchre

When a loved one passes away, there can be disputes regarding how to treat and dispose of the body. Ideally, the decedent would have included clear funeral instructions in his or her last will and testament. In some cases, those wishes might have been communicated orally or in another kind of writing to a family member. What happens when certain family members or friends want to disregard the loved one’s wishes while others wish to carry them out?

Under Pennsylvania law, each person is entitled to dictate the terms under which the body is buried or otherwise disposed of after death. This can include cremation or more modern burial innovations such as composting. If the decedent’s wishes can be shown in a will or other proven writing, these wishes must be followed. This is known as the Common Law Right of Sepulchre. Sepulchre is just a fancy old English word for burial.

Fights over how to deal with a decedent’s remains, where to have the burial, or where to keep an urn full of ashes can arise out of estate disputes in which one or more beneficiaries are trying to use the decedent’s remains as leverage. This is an awful circumstance to bear, and it is important to stand up for the decedent’s rights in court, if necessary. If a decedent’s wishes are being disregarded in this way or for any other reason, the descendants have standing to bring a challenge on that person’s behalf insisting that those wishes be followed. It is important to move quickly in such situations as some methods of laying a person to rest cannot be undone. This is why it is critical to handle these disputes correctly and with urgency.

The Right of Sepulchre also can be implicated if the family brings a wrongful death claim. These kinds of claims can require examination of the body such as an autopsy well after interment or entombment, and exhumation can conflict with the religious beliefs of the decedent. Another instance in which the Right of Sepulchre is implicated is when a graveyard is excavated. This can occur when an entity buys the land and wishes to pave over or move grave sites. In these cases, the Right of Sepulchre is an important part of defending the right of the deceased individuals to rest in peace.

Our attorneys have helped individuals defend their loved ones’ right to choose their manner of burial. If you have questions about the Right of Sepulchre or your family members’ right to dictate their wishes on these matters, contact Cornerstone Law Firm today so we can discuss your options.

Reaching Family Settlement Agreements in Estates

When a family member passes away, many factors can combine to create conflict over how to resolve the estate. Oral promises made by the decedent while alive, or a confusing portion of a will, or an apparent change in circumstances since the will was drafted, all can give rise to disputes over how the estate should be settled. In today’s blog, we will discuss how to reach a family settlement agreement designed to resolve the estate and avoid any dispute in court over an accounting.

Negotiating with family can be difficult. Negotiating over assets which might have changed in value can make these negotiations even more complicated. However, in a family settlement agreement, the parties agree that they will sign a document confirming the way that the estate should be settled rather than going to court. In some cases, this is done without any dispute at all. The parties each review the proposed settlement and confirm that they believe it is the appropriate way to distribute the estate assets. Additionally, they waive any claims against the executor of the estate in exchange for their share and confirm the way that all bills were paid and the way that the estate was handled.

Of course, these decisions are not always so easy and can be drawn out in more complicated situations. An executor who proposes a breakdown that the beneficiaries believe does not follow the will appropriately might face an accounting action. If a dispute arises over how to finalize the estate, several things can be done to resolve the matter outside of court. First, the parties can negotiate between counsel for the beneficiaries and the executor. The probate attorney handling the estate represents the executor only and not the beneficiaries, so they will need to retain their own counsel. In a situation with multiple executors, and one in which those executors disagree, the executors may wish to seek their own counsel.

Second, the parties can seek a mediation and go before someone who is not attached to the situation at all and who can help work out the parties’ differences. A mediator should try to find a middle ground where the case can be settled. It is often said that a mediator’s best result comes when they find a resolution that does not please any party completely but that is better than the alternative of spending a lot of money and going to court. Compromise is usually involved, and it is important to remember that a mediation might not get you everything that you want as part of your final agreement. Still, mediations are convenient because they do not force anyone into a decision. They are an effort at finding an appropriate compromise after seeing the facts in light of an outside party’s perspective.

Finally, the parties can submit a dispute to a binding arbitration. The family may be able to pick a family member who is truly neutral or ask a pastor or other community leader to help them resolve the dispute. There also are companies which can be hired to send an arbiter to hear the dispute. With today’s modern technology, these arbitrations can even happen remotely without everyone having to gather in the same place.

There are many other potential ways to reach family settlement agreements, but these are some of the most common. If you are in a probate dispute, or if you believe that your matter can be worked out amicably without going to court but still wish to seek legal guidance, contact the estate administration attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to learn more today.

Drafting a Will: What Should I Include?

When drafting your last will and testament, there are several important questions you will need to ask. While drafting a will can be a fairly simple process for most people, it still contains a few potentially stressful components. This article will lay out for you some of the questions you should be prepared to answer in your first appointment with your estate planning attorney.

Who gets my possessions when I die?

Of course, the most obvious question when drafting a will is who gets your possessions when you pass away. At its simplest level, this is divided in percentages between the different people you want to receive your things. We typically encourage people not to get too detailed with their precise possessions. In other words, do not name the type of car you have and say who gets it. Rather, try to figure out who should get a certain share of your total estate. The reason for this is that what you own is very likely to change before your death. If you leave a Ferrari to one of your children in your will, but you die owning a different car, there is no way to leave the Ferrari that was promised. As a result, the beneficiary loses a significant part of the inheritance that you wanted to leave for that person.

Who should care for your children and any money left for them when you pass?

While the distribution of your possessions might be the most obvious issue to consider, determining who will care for your children is certainly the most important. If you have minor children, your will is how you designate who will be their guardian in the event that you pass away. In addition, you will need to select a trustee for their funds. If you leave money behind for minor children, it will be left in trust under Pennsylvania law until they reach 21 years of age. You can alter this age in your will and include other provisions regarding the type of trust you want for them. These provisions can include requiring that they graduate college before receiving funds, that they abstain from criminal activity, or any other restrictions you wish.

The trustee is the individual who is in charge of making sure that the money is spent for their care, maintenance, and support while minors, and that it is wisely invested so that there is something left for them once they reach the designated age. A common question we get at this stage of the process is whether the guardian and the trustee can be the same person or people, and the answer is yes. You might think to put different people in these roles because someone is good at raising kids but not good with money, or vice-versa. However, selecting the same person or people for both roles is more practical as it gives those raising your children access to the funds meant for their benefit.

Who is the personal representative of your estate?

The final important consideration is selecting the personal representative of the estate. This is the executor who is charged under law with administering your estate. This person is typically paid a fee out of the estate for the work they do on your behalf, so you do not have to think of this as a burden. The executor also will hire attorneys, accountants, and other professionals to ensure that the estate is administered properly. This should be someone you trust to make sure that your wishes are carried out. Preferably, you want to select someone who is diligent, hardworking, and who can handle the details of the estate.

What about other assets?

Some assets such as your IRA, life insurance, and 401K do not pass by your will. These are considered non-probate assets, meaning that they are passed according to their beneficiary designations. If no beneficiary form is listed for such an asset, then it will pass by the will you have drafted, but this is typically something we want to avoid. Accordingly, it is important that you check the beneficiary forms for these assets to ensure that they are passing to the loved ones you intend.

Conclusion

Get your estate plans started today. No one likes to think about their last will and testament, and some people are even superstitious about drafting one, but there is no need for superstition or fear when it comes to wills. They are important documents which ensure that your estate passes to the correct people and that your children or other heirs are taken care of once you pass away.

We have covered only the basics in this article, but there is much more you can do with wills and other estate planning tools, including trusts and business succession plans. If you have questions about these topics, give our attorneys a call so that we can set up a time to meet with you and walk you through your estate plan.

What is a Power of Attorney in Pennsylvania?

Power of Attorney is a document granting one person the ability to make decisions regarding property and possessions on behalf of another. The power of attorney document (POA) is named this because the agent can act in many ways as an attorney can. Of course, this does not mean that your agent can represent you in court or perform legal work for you, but it does mean that he or she can appear on your behalf before any private party as if you yourself were present.

The POA only lasts while you are living. After you pass, your agent will no longer have the power to make decisions on your behalf regarding property, possessions, or anything else. After death, the executor named in your will takes over and opens a probate estate.

POAs are not only for the elderly, incapacitated or infirm. A POA allows you and your spouse to have unfettered access to each other’s financial affairs, even as it relates to work-related documents such as 401K or other retirement plans. POAs also can provide for business succession or allow someone to be appointed for business purposes in the event that you are disabled temporarily or permanently. POAs also are used when a person plans to go overseas and needs someone in the United States to help children or other dependents gain access to bank accounts during that time.

Guardianship

In the event that someone seeks a guardianship over you, the POA also names the person to be your guardian. The courts are bound by statute to honor this choice in a POA unless clear grounds to set aside the named agent are demonstrated.

Duties of the Agent Under a POA

If you have been named as an agent under a POA, what are your duties to the principal? Generally, you have duties:

  • of care
  • of confidence
  • of diligence
  • of loyalty
  • to keep funds separate
  • to keep records of transactions
  • to act in the best interest of the principal

This means that you cannot take the principal’s money and run off to Vegas. It also means that you cannot take all the principal’s money and invest it in a single stock or make other risky investment decisions. The POA creates an important responsibility because it allows the agent to help the principal make sound financial decisions, but the agent is also liable for poor decisions made on the principal’s behalf.

Revoking a POA

Unfortunately, POAs are sometimes abused. In the case of abuse, you can revoke the power you have given to your agent. You can do so with or without cause and at any time, but it is important to note that every action the agent has taken on your behalf will be considered ratified by you. In other words, you cannot claim that you did not authorize a specific action taken on your behalf by your agent while the POA was in effect. The POA grants that power even if it has been abused. Of course, you can sue the agent who has acted improperly under the POA; however, third parties are entitled to rely upon the POA. This is part of what makes it so powerful. No one other than you and your agent can question the validity of the document.

So why won’t the bank let me get into a bank account?

A common question we receive concerning POAs is why a bank or other financial institution would not honor the document. In most cases, this occurs because the principal has died, and the agent is attempting to access the bank account of the deceased principal. This is a common mistake and is easily solved. The executor named in the will, or the administrator if there is no will, must open a probate estate to obtain access to bank accounts and other financial assets of the deceased principal.

Conclusion

If you are interested in learning more about POAs or need one for yourself or someone else, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can help you and your loved ones determine whether a POA is right for you.

Giving Notice to Estate Beneficiaries

Beneficiaries of an estate are entitled to notice when the estate is being probated, and it’s the executor’s job to send the notice. Today, we’ll give a brief overview on how to fulfill this part of the estate process.

Giving notice to the beneficiaries is required by statute and should typically be done at the outset of the estate. Giving notice is usually done by mail on the standard form provided by the Register of Wills of your county. When you send this out, you should also keep a certificate of service to prove that you sent it. The executor or administrator will need to file a statement with the Register of Wills that notice was sent. Ordinarily, however, you will not file the actual statements that were sent.

Giving notice to the beneficiaries is not only required by statute. It also has several positive purposes. First, it lets the beneficiaries know who’s handling the estate and who they’ll need to communicate with as the process goes forward. Because many beneficiaries do not realize that estates can take several months to settle, they can often be antsy about when they’ll receive their money or other property after someone has passed away. Second, it ensures that none of the beneficiaries come forward trying to claim that the estate is being mismanaged or that no estate was opened, causing a conflict before the court as to who the proper executor or administrator should be. Third, the process of identifying all the beneficiaries helps the executor/administrator to keep clear in their own mind who will receive what or what percentage each is entitled to at the end of the probate process.

If you’ve been named executor/administrator of an estate, and you have questions about probate, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. Our estate attorneys can help you in reconciling your loved one’s estate, ensuring that it is handled correctly and that there are no claims against you in the process.

Opening an Estate in Schuylkill County

When someone you love has passed away, you’re confronted with many difficult decisions, and an estate process that can feel very complicated. If the person that you love passed away while living in Schuylkill County, here are the first three steps you’ll need to take to open an estate and probate their will.

1. Determine Whether Your Deceased Loved One Had a Will

The first question to answer is whether the person who died had a will or not. Although wills are very important, not everyone has one when they pass away. If they had a will, the process is usually easier and more straightforward. The will tells you who’s in charge of the estate (that is who the “executor” is), as well as who will inherit the possessions, money and property left behind in the will.

If your loved one did not have a will, however, you are left without this road map. Don’t be afraid: Pennsylvania law provides, by statute, who will inherit and who will be in charge of the estate. This statute is called the “Intestate Statute,” and gives detailed instructions on how such an estate will be processed. A good probate attorney can help walk you through figuring out who is in charge of the estate, and how to make sure that process goes smoothly.

2. Open an Estate in Pottsville

Once you’ve determined whether there’s a will, it’s time to open an estate in Pottsville. This is known as the “probate” process. Probating a will includes drafting something called a “Petition for Grant of Letters” and attaching the will. If there is no will, then other documents can demonstrate the proof that you are the proper person to open the estate and begin the probate process. In Schuylkill County, this petition is presented to the Schuylkill County Register of Wills. The Schuylkill County Register of Wills office is in the courthouse in Pottsville on the second floor.

3. Gather Assets and Liquidate the Estate

We’ve written in depth about this process elsewhere, but once an estate is opened through the probate process, you can begin gathering the assets, selling them as necessary to pay debts, and ultimately distributing the remainder of the estate to the beneficiaries. This process involves carefully ensuring that you are complying with the law. This includes paying taxes, paying creditors in the proper order, disputing claims filed against the estate as necessary, and occasionally seeking court orders for the transfer of real estate and other possessions.

The estate typically requires about nine months of work, though many executors are able to finish the process faster. The process ultimately culminates in filing a REV-1500 form, known as The Estate Inheritance Tax Return Form.

Conclusion

At Cornerstone Law Firm, our probate attorneys are able to help you in Schuylkill County. We will go with you to the Register of Wills in Pottsville and file documents with the Department of Revenue. We can assist­ throughout the rest of the process in providing advice, helping you to sell real estate, and properly valuing items belonging to the decedent. If someone you love has passed away in Schuylkill County and you need help processing their estate, call Cornerstone Law Firm for a free consultation today.

Avoiding Probate in Estate Planning

As we have discussed in other articles, probate is the process of an opening of an estate and transferring ownership of assets from a deceased individual to that person’s beneficiaries. Probate can be an expensive and time-consuming process, and naturally, many families are eager to find ways to avoid probate in advance.

In this article we are going to talk about some of the common ways that people avoid probate by planning ahead so that their loved ones do not have to incur the time and expense of probate. Please be aware that there are specific pros and cons to each of these approaches depending on a number of factors. It is important for you to speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about your options. This article is meant to help you, but it is not formal legal advice.

Revocable Living Trusts

One common mechanism to avoid probate is to create a revocable living trust rather than a will. While a will goes to probate, a trust can continue “living” even after you have passed away. The trust document controls who takes over responsibility for the assets of the trust, and who they benefit.

There are a few steps to this approach. First, you would place all of your assets, including your house, your cars and your bank accounts into the living trust. You will essentially live your life out of the living trust. Think of it as carrying around a basket that holds all your assets. A trust document lays out who will pick up the basket when you die. Your heirs, whom you designate to “pick up the basket,” then have the option of either administering the trust and living out of it themselves, or of “decanting the trust” and taking those assets for themselves.

The advantages to a trust include that you can avoid probate, including the costs and attorneys’ fees necessary to navigate the estate administration process. Furthermore, trusts give your loved ones access to your assets faster after your death. Finally, a trust can keep your estate private so that people cannot see it as a matter of public record when you pass away. For some people, the privacy is an important consideration.

But there are drawbacks to this approach, as well. For one thing, trusts won’t avoid inheritance taxes due to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania upon your death. Second, a trust does not protect you from Medicare forcing repayment for the medical care that they paid for at the end of your life. In other words, this is not the way to avoid losing what you owe to nursing homes nor is it a way to avoid any taxes.

Furthermore, setting up and administering a living trust day to day is more expensive than simply drafting a will. You have to be sure that you carefully keep up with all the formalities of the trust and put new assets into this trust; otherwise, your beneficiaries may have to go through probate anyway because you forgot to include an asset. There are more robust trust options, including an irrevocable living trust, which can also save you some of the taxes and other costs that you might typically associate with starting a trust in the first place. To learn more about these, you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Gifting Assets

A second way to avoid probate is to begin gifting your assets early. This includes putting your cars in other peoples’ names, putting your children on bank accounts, not merely as trustees or agents, but as co-owners. It even includes deeding your house to your heirs.

The advantages to this approach are that these assets do not need to go through probate because they belong to your heirs before your passing. Better yet, depending on how long you live after the gifting event, there may be no inheritance tax or Medicare liability.

But the obvious disadvantages to this should be apparent immediately. First, after gifting these assets, they legally belong to your children or other heirs. This means that, for example, if they get into a car accident and owe someone a lot of money, that someone can usually come collect against the assets that you’ve gifted over to them. This approach also secures your assets from Medicare or Medicaid, but only if done five years before any care or costs are incurred. Otherwise, the Department of Human Services will use the five year look back period to reclaim these assets. This would defeat the purpose of the gifting in the first place. Additionally, gifting your assets can affect your eligibility for credit or other financial planning tools.

Gifting a large amount of money and property to your heirs can also have significant tax implications for them. You can give away $14,000 a year as of 2022, without incurring any taxes. You can also use your lifetime gift taxing exemption to give some of these assets away. Nonetheless, if you are not careful and if you do not properly claim these, this will result in tax liability for your heirs. Remember also that if you gift a house to your children, they will need to pay the real estate tax every year.

One approach to this sort of gifting is known as the “half a loaf approach” in which you give your children a survivor interest in the house without giving them present possessory interest. This is more complicated than we can cover in this article here, but it is one approach that allows you to gift at least some of the value out of your estate before death to avoid some of the costs of probate.

However, it is important to remember that probate is not exactly an all or nothing affair. If you forget to gift anything out of your estate, your children will have to choose between abandoning that asset or probating the estate anyway. In such a case, this gifting may not have been helpful to your heirs.

Conclusion

There are certainly advantages to avoiding probate if you can do it. But sometimes, it is more trouble than it is worth. Whether to take one of the steps outlined above depends on the size of your estate, the nature of your family relationships and more. If you’re interested in learning more, speak with one of the experienced estate planning attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm about your options so that we can help guide you through the process.