Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wills and Probate - Tips For Getting Final Affairs in Order

Wills and probate are part of life and death. A last will is used to express the final wishes of a person who has died. This legal document outlines everything from funeral arrangements to which assets beneficiaries will inherit. Upon death, decedents' last will and testaments are filed through probate courts for validation and estate settlement.

The process of validating wills and probate typically extends between three and nine months. Probate allows time for estate administrators to locate missing heirs, contact creditors, obtain property appraisals, pay outstanding debts, and notify government agencies such as Medicare, Social Security or Veteran's Administration.

Factors which can prolong probate include case workload, contesting a will, or when decedents' do not execute a last will and testament. Intestate probate requires appointing an estate executor through court confirmation. Oftentimes, relatives will accept the position or retain the services of a lawyer or estate planner to settle the estate.

Contesting wills occurs when heirs believe they are rightfully entitled to inheritance assets which were not bequeathed to them. Heirs can also contest probated wills if they believe the deceased was not of sound mind or under the influence of another when they executed the document.

When wills are contested, the plaintiff absorbs legal fees unless the court rules in their favor. The decedent's estate must pay for legal counsel to object. If the court files in the plaintiff's favor, the estate must reimburse legal expenses. Contesting a will rarely accomplishes anything other than destroying family relationships and bankrupting the estate with litigation fees.

When family dysfunction exists, estate planning experts recommend hiring a probate lawyer to settle the estate. Although this can't prevent heirs from contesting a will, it oftentimes dissuades family members from proceeding in this manner.

Several options exist to avoid probate and the time-consuming and costly tasks that come with it. Many estate planners and probate attorneys provide complimentary sessions to discuss estate planning needs. These professionals can advise the best course of action to protect your family and assets.

Estate planning can be as simple as executing a last will and testament to developing irrevocable or revocable trusts. Multiple types of trusts exist and can be customized to suit individual needs. Trusts are managed by an appointed Trustee. Assets protected by trusts are usually exempt from inheritance taxation.

Small estates can utilize strategies to keep assets out of probate. Assign transfer on death beneficiaries to retirement and financial investment accounts and payable on death beneficiaries to banking and checking accounts. Real estate and automobiles can be jointly titled.

Personal probate representatives must submit forms to state Tax Assessor's office where the decedent resided. These forms are required to provide evidence no outstanding taxes are owed. As long as taxes are current, the Assessor will stamp the form and return to the institution where funds are held. Funds are then distributed to beneficiaries. If taxes are owed, the estate must make payment before distribution occurs.

The process of wills and probate can be a dreadful experience for loved ones; especially when family strife exists. Don't procrastinate about writing a will. The process is not difficult and in the end it is the best gift you can leave your loved ones.

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