What are the Stages of Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. How exactly does the probate process work?

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an estate planning attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

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What Happens When Real Estate Is Inherited?

The number one question on most people’s minds when they inherit real estate, is whether they have to pay taxes on it. For the most part, people don’t have to pay taxes on what they inherit, unless they live in a state with an inheritance tax. There are tax forms to be filed, says the Petoskey News-Review in the article “The pros and cons of inheriting real estate,” but not every estate has to pay taxes.

The estate has to pay taxes on any gains or losses after the death of the decedent, if and when they sell the property. The seller will have either capital gains or capital losses, depending upon what the house was purchased for and what it sold for.

Let’s say that Mom purchased the house for $100,000, gave it to her children and then they sold it for $120,000. They have to pay capital gains on the $20,000. When someone dies, heirs get the step-up in basis, so they get the value of the property at the date of the decedent’s death. If mom bought the house for $100,000 and when she died it had jumped in value to $220,000 the children sold it for $220,000,n there would be no capital gain.

People who inherit property should have it appraised by an experienced real estate appraiser to determine the actual value at the date of death.  An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to recommend an appraiser.

One of the biggest disagreements that families face after the death of a loved one, centers on selling real estate property. Some families actually break up over it, which is a shame. It would be far better for the family to talk about the property before the parents die and work out a plan.

The sticking point often centers on a summer home being passed down to multiple heirs. One wants to sell it, another wants to rent it out for summers and use it during winters and the third wants to move in. If they can resolve these issues with their parents, it’s less likely to come up as a divisive factor when the parents die, and emotions are running high. This gives the parents or grandparents a chance to talk about what they want after they have passed and why.

Conflicts can also arise when it’s time to clean up the house after someone inherits the property. Mom’s old lemon juicer or Dad’s favorite BBQ fork seem like small items, until they become part of family history.

The best thing for families that are able to pass a house down to the next generation, is to start the discussion early and make a plan.

An estate planning attorney can help the family work through the issues, including creating a plan for how the real estate property should be handled. The estate planning attorney will also be able to help the family  plan for any taxes that might be due, so there are no big surprises.

Reference: Petoskey News-Review (June 25, 2019) “The pros and cons of inheriting real estate”