Estates and Probate
Probate is the process by which the Register of Wills of the Court of Common Pleas of the county in which a decedent dies, supervises the administration of the decedent’s estate. Generally, a decedent’s estate is composed of property owned at death. Probate of a Will takes place in the Register of Wills office. In the absence of a Will, an individual can petition the Register of Wills to be appointed the administrator and act similarly to an executor, to administer the disposition of the decedent’s assets and to pay their debts and taxes, if any. The probate process is not costly and the probate clerks are helpful and provide guidance, although legal advice can only be provided by an attorney. An attorney can help you distinguish between probate and non-probate property and guide the executor or administrator to timely file the necessary documents and tax and other related matters that must be addressed.
Various scams exist that claim to help one avoid probate. Sales people claim that a living trust will avoid probate, although probate is an often necessary and helpful process. Although only an attorney should prepare a living trust, before having a lawyer prepare a living trust, you must determine whether it will be useful for your situation. Living trusts may be helpful, for example, when you own out-of-state real estate and wish to avoid probate outside Pennsylvania.
Some people are confused by the complexity of revocable trusts and may experience or feel a loss of control over the assets in the trust. Moreover, many feel the benefits of a costly trust can be obtained through less expensive alternatives, such as through the use of a general durable power of attorney or by re-titling accounts to designate beneficiaries.
Living trusts are clearly not for everybody.
Just as you need to review your will periodically, you should check the beneficiary designations on your life insurance and retirement accounts to make sure they are up-to-date. Many people select beneficiaries when purchasing a life insurance policy or opening their accounts but never revisit these decisions. It is particularly important to do so as families change over the years.
You also need to be aware that jointly-held property, accounts held in trust for (ITF) and annuities do not pass according to the provisions of your will. Rather, these items pass by law to designated beneficiaries or to the survivor listed on the account. Be sure these beneficiary designations are carefully reviewed when developing your estate plan.