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Estate Planning & Avoiding Probate: See the Forest, Not Just the Trees

Often times when clients make an appointment with our law firm, they have a very specific estate planning concern or issue. They may have a particular focus in mind, such as updating a will or avoiding probate. With a plethora of details to consider, it is often challenging for individuals to adequately address all aspects of their personal “big picture”, i.e. their complete estate.

We help our clients see the big picture. By making broader recommendations and plans, we ensure that our clients have completely addressed every part of their estate planning, including specific concerns. Take for example someone who is looking to protect their home. We will discuss the various options the client would have, including placing the home into a Medicaid asset protection trust. But what about the client’s other assets? What, if anything, should be done with those assets? We may recommend that the client add beneficiaries to accounts such as bank accounts and investment accounts. This way, the client may keep complete control over those assets if they want or need to, but will at the same time avoid probate the legal process that handles all matters of the deceased’s estate for their loved ones when the client dies.  

In general, probate can be avoided by:

  • naming a beneficiary;
  • sharing ownership; or
  • creating and funding a trust.

It is also important to be aware of the rules and regulations that govern estate distribution. For example, New York State has a process called small estate proceeding. For estate totals that are $30,000 or less, the process of distributing estate holdings is simplified, and a lawyer may not be needed. However, for amounts that are higher than $30,000, beneficiaries are subject to the probate process if planning is not in place, thus delaying estate distribution and incurring expenses.

As such, accounting for all components of the estate is critical. The following example illustrates how important it is to be thorough and to ensure that the entire estate plan is in good order.

Recently, I met with two siblings about their deceased mother’s estate. Their mother had basic planning in place including some legal documents, power of attorney, and a health care proxy. In addition, she had a will and co-owned almost all of her bank accounts with her sons. However, she had a brokerage account and one bank account that did not have a joint owner or named beneficiary. Since the other accounts were shared jointly, her sons had assumed she had named them as beneficiaries on these two remaining accounts. Unfortunately, she did not. Because the sum of the accounts totaled approximately $50,000, a full probate proceeding was required.

Oversights like this can be costly and time-consuming. In the aforementioned example, my clients would have avoided probate if their mother had simply named beneficiaries on the accounts prior to her death.

By working together, we will help you see the forest and not just the trees ensuring that you have a well prepared and thought out estate plan.

If a comprehensive estate plan is important to you, contact us to discuss your estate planning goals.

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