Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money

A reader recently reached out after his elderly mother died, asking how soon he could distribute the $10,000 she had earmarked in her will for each of her two grandchildren.

Because she lived in California, I had to break the bad news: He won’t be able to hand over the money any time soon.

Probate is the court process to distribute someone’s estate after their death, even if there is a will, and is notoriously slow in California. A typical probate takes nine to 12 months, and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 mean the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive in California: By law, an attorney could charge $11,000 in fees to handle the woman’s $400,000 estate.

In my latest for the Associated Press, what to keep in mind if you’re trying to decide whether to make the investment to spare your heirs the expense and hassle of probate.

Q&A: Arizona mom doesn’t want a trust

Dear Liz: My mom is 93 and lives in Arizona. I’m in California. She refuses to complete a revocable living trust, and after several years, I have given up with the request. She states she has added my name to the deed to the house and her bank account. She believes she has done enough. She states she completed a will that she got at Office Max. What would be my first steps if she precedes me in death?

Answer: She may be stubborn, but she’s making mistakes that could impair her quality of life and saddle you with a big, unnecessary tax bill. Consider trying to persuade her to fix these errors before it’s too late.

Not having a living trust isn’t necessarily a crisis. Yes, a living trust would allow your mother’s estate to avoid probate, the court process that typically follows death. But probate in Arizona typically isn’t as long or expensive as it is in California.

What’s more important is having documents in place that allow you (or someone else) to handle her finances and make healthcare decisions should she become incapacitated. Without that, you might have to go to court, which could be a long and expensive process (especially now, with the backlog created by COVID-19-related shutdowns).

A living trust also would make it relatively easy for a trusted person to step in and handle her affairs if necessary. In the absence of a living trust, you should insist she fill out an advanced care directive that would allow a trusted person to make healthcare decisions for her. There are free versions for each state at PrepareForYourCare.org, along with instructions about how to make it valid. If she doesn’t have a computer, you can print out Arizona’s version and send it to her.

She also needs to create a power of attorney for finances. Offer to hire an estate planning attorney to do this, since it’s a relatively simple form and not likely to be expensive. There are online forms and software that can do this if she absolutely refuses to consult an attorney.

An estate planning attorney might also be able to help you get off the deed. When she added you to the deed, your mom signed you up to pay capital gains taxes you wouldn’t owe otherwise. All the appreciation in the home that happened during her lifetime would be taxable, when it doesn’t need to be.

Let’s say she bought the home for $25,000 and it was worth $250,000 when she died. If you inherited the home and sold it for $250,000, you would owe no capital gains taxes.

If she gives you the home before her death — which she essentially did by adding you to the deed — you don’t get the valuable step-up in tax basis that keeps you from having to pay capital gains taxes on the appreciation that happened during her lifetime. Instead, you would owe capital gains taxes on the $225,000 appreciation. (This is a simplified example meant to help you and her understand the magnitude of the blunder.)

Arizona is one of the many states that has “transfer on death” deeds for real estate. These deeds would allow the house to avoid probate and come directly to you. That’s almost certainly a better solution than the one she chose.

Q&A: How the COVID-19 pandemic is delaying inheritances

Dear Liz: My mother passed away in March due to old age. She lived in California. I live out of state and couldn’t travel because of the pandemic. My siblings took care of her burial. Her will named me executor. I’d like to know how long I have to settle her estate and whether I will need an attorney. Her house was her major asset and was assessed at $400,000. There’s no mortgage. The house goes to an older brother and me, and two grandsons each get $10,000. I want to make sure the grandsons get their inheritances as soon as possible.

Answer: Your grandsons will have to wait awhile. California probate is slow at the best of times, with a typical case taking eight to 12 months or more. Pandemic-related court closures are adding many months to the process. Courts are slowly reopening but dealing with a significant backlog of filings.

Your mother’s will should be filed with the appropriate county within 30 days of her death and the county tax assessor should be notified within 150 days because she was a property owner, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Though most counties allow electronic filing for probate matters, it’s typically not the most user-friendly process and you may want to consult a probate attorney. The initial consultation is usually free. Hiring an attorney to handle the whole process probably won’t be cheap: By law, probate attorneys can charge 4% of the first $100,000 of the estate, 3% of the next $100,000, 2% of the next $800,000, 1% of the next $9 million, and 0.5% of the next $15 million.

Your mom could have avoided probate entirely if she’d created a revocable living trust, or if she had taken other probate-avoidance measures. In California and many other states, real estate can be passed on with a “transfer on death” deed that avoids probate. She also could have set up bank accounts and designated your grandsons as beneficiaries to avoid probate.

It’s too late now, obviously. But whatever you do, don’t jump the gun by making distributions, Sawday warned.

“If there is a will, under no circumstances should he make the cash gifts to the grandsons until the court admits the will, appoints him as executor and probate actually commences,” Sawday said.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 reasons it’s smart to lease a car right now. Also in the news: How to free up cash in your budget, how to decide what to leave your kids, and all the ways to get Amazon Prime for free.

5 Reasons It’s Smart to Lease a Car Right Now
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Q&A: Picking your estate’s executor

Dear Liz: One issue in a recent column was about a sibling who did not follow the will. As executor, the sibling took two thirds of the estate instead of the will’s specification of half.

This is why, when my wife and I had our estate plan created, we told the attorney that none of the beneficiaries should be the executor of our wills and none should be a trustee of our trusts. Indeed, our trusts — which own almost our entire estate — cannot have the spouse, child, parent or in-law of a beneficiary as a trustee.

Answer: Yours is certainly one solution, if you can find the appropriate people to serve. But naming an heir as executor or trustee doesn’t have to be a disaster, as long as you name the right person — someone who is honest, dependable and able to serve with integrity.

Q&A: Pitfalls of unequal will distributions

Dear Liz: You’ve written that when writing their wills, parents should be careful about leaving unequal distributions to their children. What wasn’t mentioned was that a person could have a “good” child and a “bad” one. The “bad one” has never done a thing for the parent, such as inviting her to the child’s home at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and only visits the parent in the summer when the parent just happens to live at the beach. The “good” one is very attentive and visits the parent even in winter, and so on. What is your thinking in inheritance in this case?

Answer: It’s your money, and there’s no one right way to divide an estate. However, it’s disturbing that your assessment of your children seems to be based solely on how much attention you get.

It’s possible one child acts more selfishly or thoughtlessly than the other. It’s also possible that you are difficult to please, and one child understandably limits the time she spends trying to do so.

Q&A: Getting sister’s house without a will

Dear Liz: When I retired in 2018, I rolled over my 403(b) teachers retirement account into a traditional IRA and made my sister sole beneficiary. I sent her a copy of that beneficiary statement showing her name, her percentage (100%), and my account number. My sister later told me in a phone call that she wished to bequeath me her house should she predecease me. She explained she didn’t have a will but she made her feelings known to our older brother. Even if I were on speaking terms with our older brother, I would find this arrangement naive. Knowing my sister, she actually believes this method is the right way to proceed with her wishes. I’m asking you to be Dear Abby, perhaps, but what do I do?

Answer: You can explain to her that if she doesn’t have a will, the laws of her state will determine who gets her house regardless of what she intended. If your sister does not have a spouse or children, and your parents are dead, you and your brother would probably inherit the home as well as the rest of her estate. You would have to negotiate what to do with the house, which could be difficult if you two still aren’t speaking.

If you can’t get her to write a will, there may be another option. Many states allow “transfer on death” deeds, which are forms that allow people to name a beneficiary for their home. This would ensure that the house is left to you and that it avoids probate, the court process that otherwise follows death.

Q&A: When an executor doesn’t heed the will

Dear Liz: My dad’s will clearly divided his estate equally between his two sons. By the time Dad died, my brother had two kids. After the funeral, my sister-in-law sat me down and told me that everything will be divided into three parts. I would get one-third and they get two-thirds, because they had the kids. This was not a request; it was, “That’s the way it’s going to be and there’s nothing you can do about it.” My brother, who was the executor, was nowhere to be seen — a pattern when dealing with money issues. This was many years ago. I was a student at the time. I went along with it but wonder to this day about the fairness of the situation.

Answer: Wonder no more. If the situation was as you describe and your brother ignored your father’s will, then he wasn’t just unfair to you. He violated the law.

Executors are supposed to follow the will’s directions to the best of their ability. If they don’t, they can be held personally responsible. But each state has statutes of limitation that give you only a certain amount of time to file a civil lawsuit in these situations. You may have a bit more time if you were a minor when all this happened, but you’d want to consult an attorney to discuss your options.

You wouldn’t be the first person done out of an inheritance by a self-dealing sibling, unfortunately. This should be a reminder to parents not to reflexively choose the oldest child, or indeed any child, to fill this role without thinking about the child’s character.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Should you leave your kids an equal inheritance? Also in the news: The Points Nerd on who we can trust about travel safety, a student loan expert takes her own advice, and how to apply for a credit card when you don’t have a credit score.

Should You Leave Your Kids an Equal Inheritance?
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Don’t give your adult kids your house

Adding an adult child to your house deed, or giving them the home outright, might seem like a smart thing to do. It usually isn’t.

Transferring your house to your kids while you’re alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. But gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax bill and put your house at risk if your kids get sued or file for bankruptcy. You also could be making a big mistake if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

In my latest for the Associated Press, learn the better ways to transfer a house to your kids, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died.