How Do I Avoid Probate?

I hear this question daily in my practice. Here are some answers.

1) Avoid Death. This is more of a medical than legal answer, but as far as I know no one has been able to do this yet.

2) Die Penniless. Some really famous and well regarded people have died penniless, thereby avoiding probate as there is nothing to distribute. Consider this short list: Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Pope John Paul II to name a few. Spend everything and gain fame. Not a bad choice. Or you can give it all away, but then what do you live on while you are waiting to die? Just to avoid probate? Maybe not such a great choice.

3) Will Substitutes. This is actual legal solution. These will substitutes take several forms. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

A) Joint tenancy With Right of Survivorship. This is a favorite box that is checked on bank records not by the depositor but by the bank clerk because, they testify in the estate litigation later, “We always do it that way”. It is indeed remarkable how much law is practiced by the unlicensed in bank lobbies across America.

What this designation on the bank record does is make the money in the account instantly the property of anyone else on the account when one of them dies. What this means is the niece who was trusted to pay grandma’s bills suddenly has a windfall when grandma dies and creates a family fight that will last a generation. Moral of the Story: If you are going to open a bank account with anyone you are making an estate planning decision.  Ask to see the card before you sign where they indicate. It is possible to name people as joint tenants without right of survivorship, or just give them signatory authority if you do not want them taking at death. But then you haven’t avoided probate, because the probate is how we move the money to the people you want to receive the money at death.

B) Revocable Living Trust. The idea behind this approach is the person contemplating death transfers everything he or she owns to a trust that is controlled by the person transferring to it. The house is titled under the trust as is the car, and anything else that needs a name attached to it. The trust then transfers assets to the residual beneficiaries when the person making the trust dies, and no messy probate need be commenced. At least that is the idea.

Revocable Living Trust is something Susie Orman has told America via television to do to avoid probate. Susie doesn’t have a law degree or a license to practice law, but she is on television so apparently we are to believe her. She is in California as well, and based on my ancillary contact with the probates of California I this is probably a good choice.

The trouble is I have yet to see a fully funded trust after the persons have died that formed it. It seems there is always something left out, not transferred to the trust during life, and the only option is filing the probate. Additionally not everyone in Washington State caught Susie Orman’s legal advice on television. As such, showing up at the bank and declaring yourself the Trustee of your parents Revocable Living Trust draws a blank stare, and a standard response: Go file a probate and bring us authority from the Court that you really get your parents money.

C) Contracts. This is related to the first two, but can include a life insurance policy. It could also reference a transfer of land at death due to the tenancy in land being only a life estate, with remaindermen named in the recorded deed. Wow, that sounds hard. It doesn’t really dispose of all the property either, only the land.

So, to sum up an answer to the question “How do I avoid probate?” the answer for most of humanity is to buy into a lot of gimmicks that are usually filed under “Mistakes a lawyer will fix later by filing a probate”.

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