Everyone dies with one of three estate plans. Some die with a Last Will and Testament (Will), others die with a fully funded revocable living trust (RLT), while still others die with neither a Will nor a RLT. The purpose of this brief article is to introduce each of these three estate planning approaches – not to serve as an in-depth treatise on the benefits and drawbacks of each.
When a loved one dies, you need to go through his or her papers as soon as possible to look for a Will. Why? This traditional estate planning legal document often contains critical instructions regarding any “final wishes” of the decedent. For example, some people include funeral and burial instructions in their Wills. Time is of the essence when it comes to those decisions.
Assuming that you’ve found the Will, the first thing you should do is read it and determine who is appointed as its executor/personal representative. If you are the executor, you need to know who the beneficiaries of the Will are, what they are to receive, and when. You also need to determine whether the Will identifies anyone else as a co-executor. For example, a parent might name her two adult children as co-executors of her Will. All co-executors must be involved in the probate process unless they formally decline the appointment. Read the Will to see if it creates any “testamentary trusts” to administer the inheritance. Parents often provide that the inheritance of a minor child shall be held in trust and distributed according to its terms, instead of being distributed outright in a lump sum.
Without delay, contact the attorney who prepared the Will. That attorney is likely the person who knows the “testamentary intent” of the decedent, along with the nature and location of all estate assets.
Proving the Will
The first responsibility of the probate court is to “prove” the Will. In other words, is the Will presented truly the “Last Will” and not the “second to the last Will”? If the judge determines that the Will presented is the “Last Will” and is otherwise legal in all technical respects, the judge will issue “letters testamentary” or “letters of administration,” giving you legal authority to act as executor on behalf of the estate. You can use this key document when dealing with the decedent’s banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies, and fulfilling the many responsibilities that come with being the executor of the estate.
With a valid Will and letters of administration in hand, the duties of the executor regarding probate administration may vary from state to state, but generally the executor follows these fundamental steps:
- Collects, protects, values and insures (if needed) the assets of the estate,
- Files an inventory with the court listing the assets subject to probate,
- Provides actual notice to known creditors and notice by publication to potential creditors,
- Pays the final expenses, taxes and legitimate debts of the decedent,
- Files appropriate state and federal tax returns for the decedent and the estate,
- Distributes the assets according to the Will (with the approval of the judge, if needed),
- Follows any additional specific instructions under the Will (with the approval of the judge, if needed), and
- Closes the estate and receives formal discharge by the probate judge.
- Note: the executor is often appointed to serve as the trustee for any “testamentary trusts” created over the inheritance. While your services as executor may end with the closing of probate, it may only be beginning, if appointed as trustee.
Revocable Trust-based Planning
If the decedent left a trust agreement, the estate will be distributed according to the terms of the trust document, with little if any involvement by the probate court. In many states, the trust agreement itself is not filed with the court unless there’s a contest or dispute. As a result, there’s no need for the court to declare whether the trust agreement is valid and appoint a trustee. This lack of probate is one of the chief advantages of a RLT-based estate plan. However, probate would still be necessary to approve of any guardian nominated to serve as the backup parent for an orphaned minor child.
In contrast to probate administration under the supervision of an impartial judge, the trustee is responsible for the complete stewardship over the trust assets and fulfilling its terms. This responsibility includes paying final expenses, taxes and legitimate debts of the decedent, managing assets, paying the debts and expenses, filing the tax returns and distributing the trust assets according to the terms of the trust agreement. As with a “testamentary trust” created under a Will, these distributions may be made in an immediate lump sum, staggered over years, or continue over multiple generations.
No Will or Trust
Every state has “intestate succession” laws governing what happens when a person dies without a valid Will or RLT. As described above, it’s even possible to have a Will declared invalid, resulting in the estate going through intestacy. One of the greatest drawbacks to “dying intestate” is the complete lack of input that the decedent has when it comes to who serves as executor and how the inheritance is distributed. For example, in many states, if the decedent was married and had minor children, then the surviving spouse doesn’t inherit the entire estate. The surviving spouse may be responsible for managing the share allotted to the children until each child reaches age 18. Upon reaching that age, the inheritance for each child must be paid over in one lump sum, even if the child has special needs or suffers from addictions.
Your life, loved ones, and estate are all unique. In turn, your estate planning should reflect your goals to protect everyone you love and everything you have.