When someone dies, the distribution of their assets is hopefully determined by a clear and legally binding will. If not, the assets come under control of the state, and a probate court will decide how best to distribute them.
Even if your financial life is pretty simple, you should have a will. However, there’s more work to be done. Assets must be properly titled, so that assets are distributed as intended upon death.
Forbes’ recent article, “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled” notes that with the exception of the choice of potential guardians for children, the most important function of a will is to make certain that the transfer of assets to beneficiaries is the way you intended.
Whether you’re single, coupled up, or married, deciding how to hold title to your family home is one of the most critical decisions home buyers make. The effects of that decision may not be apparent for years, says The Washington Post in the recent article, “What you need to know about holding title to a home with a loved one.”
There are three primary ways to title property between spouses. Joint tenancy is the least common and typically must include the language “with right of survivorship and not as tenants in common.” Spouses typically acquire title as “tenants by the entireties,” which only applies to spouses in a limited number of states.
When a couple acquires a home before marriage, in some states, a premarital joint tenancy automatically becomes tenants by the entireties, when they marry. However, the drawback to joint tenancy, is that it’s possible for one spouse’s interest to be alienated by deed or by a judgment lien or bankruptcy. In some states, a joint tenancy can be partitioned, so that the ownership can be separated.
A surviving spouse doesn’t have to do anything upon the death of a spouse, depending on how they held title to their home. Ask your estate planning attorney about any changes to the title of the property, to be certain that title is set up this way.
There are many ways married couples or those in a civil union can hold title to a home. Joint tenancy with rights of survivorship again gives each owner the ability to own the entirety of the home upon the death of the co-owner. This transfer is automatic and doesn’t require any paperwork or legal processing.
Tenancy by the entireties gives the couple the same survivorship rights as a joint tenancy deed, but it also affords the couple certain protections against some creditors. It provides that debts entered into by one of the spouses, shouldn’t cause the loss of the home.
The third form of ownership is to hold title as tenants in common. Here, each owner has a specific percentage ownership interest in the home. When a co-owner dies, that person’s share goes to the person designated in the will or by the laws in the state where the property’s located.
In addition to these three ways to hold title, there are also various estate planning trusts that can be used. Ask your estate planning attorney about what’s best for your specific situation.
Reference: The Washington Post (April 15, 2019) “What you need to know about holding title to a home with a loved one”
Figuring out what will happen to your assets after you pass away, is an unpleasant but necessary task. This ensures that your assets are distributed to the people you want. The publication, the day, recently published a story, “Planning to leave your home to your heirs,” that reminds us that it’s best to begin your estate planning, as soon as possible.
Death can unexpectedly impact young or middle-aged families, and your family may not be sufficiently prepared, if you don’t have a will. Estate planning can make certain that your wishes are clearly stated and executed.
Real estate is frequently given to an adult child, grandchild, or is divided among several heirs. Once you know who will receive the property, discuss your plans with these people to keep them apprised of your plans and avoid any unpleasant surprises.
If you include your home in the will, you can stipulate precisely who should benefit from it. You can also say if you want the home to stay in the family or be sold.
Dividing the interest in a property evenly among beneficiaries might seem fair, but it can also create some unexpected complications. If one beneficiary wants to move into the home and another wants to sell it and split the proceeds, things could get dicey. Discuss this issue with your beneficiaries to resolve this potential conflict in advance. One beneficiary could buy out the other beneficiaries’ shares in the property to take sole possession of it. However, you may need a life insurance policy to be sure that the cash is there for a buyout.
A will is also used to delegate responsibilities to certain heirs. You select an executor to oversee the disposition of your estate after your death.
An outstanding mortgage balance can cause some trouble, when passing on a property. Any debts you have at the time of your death, need to be paid before your estate can be settled. If you were still making mortgage payments, be sure your beneficiaries have a plan to avoid a default. Beneficiaries, a surviving spouse, the executor of estate, or any other party can continue to make payments to your bank to avoid a foreclosure process. There are several ways that your beneficiaries can resolve a mortgage, after they take possession of the home. In addition to just selling the property, they can refinance the loan or pay off the mortgage with any assets they have or receive from your estate. That way, they would own the home free and clear.
Review your will regularly to keep it up to date. Make a change if a beneficiary dies, if your own circumstances change, or if your relationship with an heir goes bad.
You can also transfer your home to a living trust. This lets you use and benefit from the asset while living and then transfer it to beneficiaries upon death. This will avoid the probate process and save heirs time and money. The trust document identifies beneficiaries and determines how the estate will be distributed after death. It can also name a trustee to oversee this process and avoid conflict among beneficiaries.
One downside of a living trust is that any outstanding debts must be taken care of before the home and any other assets in the trust can be transferred to beneficiaries.
If a beneficiary is comfortable with assuming some responsibility for owning your home, you can also update the deed to include them. This can be especially helpful, if your spouse isn’t currently on the deed. This will make transfer of the home easier. If the deed says: “transfer on death,” you own the home outright until your death, then it passes to any beneficiaries you name in the deed. When the deed includes the words “joint tenant with right of survivorship,” ownership of the home automatically transfers to any other co-owners on the deed, when you pass away.
Reference: the day (February 15, 2019) “Planning to leave your home to your heirs”
Investopedia’s article from this fall, “How to Get Your Estate Plan on Track,” tells us what an estate plan accomplishes. A good estate plan accomplishes three objectives:
- End-of-life health care decisions are documented in a legally binding document;
- Assets will be distributed according to your instructions, rather than state law; and
- Loved ones avoid the time, expense and stress of the probate process.
A basic estate plan should include advanced directives, such as a health care proxy and power of attorney, will (perhaps a “pour-over” will and a revocable living trust). If you want to ensure that you have a valid will that follows the laws of your state, avoid pitfalls and best protect your family, hire an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain you have professional legal knowledge, when considering the nuances of trusts and estate law.
A health care proxy, also called a health care power of attorney, accomplishes two goals. First, it authorizes a designated individual to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are ill or otherwise can’t make these decisions on your own. Without this, a judge would decide who has this authority in those circumstances. A health care proxy also allows you to document specific decisions for your health care, such as end-of-life decisions.
Your estate plan should also include a power of attorney, which allows you to authorize a person to make financial decisions in your stead. It’s used, if you’re not in a position to handle such affairs on your own (like a health care proxy).
Probate is the legal process where the court approves the distribution of your assets and gives creditors an opportunity to collect your debts. Going through probate can be stressful for your heirs. There are costs incurred and procedures that must be followed before assets are distributed. The probate process can take months and can be dragged out for more than a year in some situations.
Probate can be avoided with the right planning. For example, you can title certain assets like bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and property, so they pass directly by operation of law to your heirs, and bypass probate. Retirement assets are required to have beneficiaries and likewise will bypass probate. Make sure to have contingent beneficiaries, so these assets continue to bypass probate, if your beneficiaries predecease you.
For people with minor children, designating their potential guardian is one of the most critical elements of an estate plan. It is part of your will in most states. Remember, if you don’t name guardians in your will, and both you and your spouse pass away, the court will appoint a guardian, which may not be ideal for your children.
There are other unique situations that may warrant creating additional documentation and planning. These include having a business, adult children from a previous marriage, a potential liability against your estate or a special needs child. In any of these situations, you’ll definitely need to review your circumstances with an attorney.
Those assets held jointly (your home perhaps) and assets that have a beneficiary (life insurance) aren’t included in the will. Each state has its own rules about where the property goes, when a person dies without a will.
Estate planning is an ongoing process. Review your plan every few years or if you’ve had any major life changes, like a birth or adoption of a child, a divorce or a death of a family member.
Having your affairs in order can help prevent making things worse after you pass away.
Reference: Investopedia (October 17, 2018) “How to Get Your Estate Plan on Track”