Understanding inheritance law basics can provide individuals with the opportunity to protect assets and personal property upon death. The Uniform Probate Code has governed inheritance law since 1969. UPC provides directives of estate settlement procedures for testate and intestate estates.
Probate inheritance law varies by state. Presently, 18 states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code in its entirety, while the remaining 32 states have adopted parts of the statute. Individuals designated as an estate executor should consult with a probate attorney to ensure compliance.
Intestate estates refer to estates where decedents died without executing a last will and testament. These estates require extra work because an estate executor must be confirmed through the court and rightful heirs need to be located.
Testate estates refer to estates where a last will was executed. The estate executor is appointed within the Will, along with directives for distribution of inheritance property.
Probate is the legal protocol used within the U.S. to validate decedents’ Wills, settle outstanding debt obligations, legally transfer titled property, and distribute inheritance gifts to heirs and beneficiaries.
Settling probate estates can be a time-consuming process that is prolonged when decedents do not engage in estate planning. Estate executors in charge of intestate estates must adhere to specific protocol in regard to distributing assets and personal property.
When decedents are married, assets usually automatically transfer to the surviving spouse. If there is no spouse, assets are typically gifted to direct lineage heirs such as siblings, parents, and children. Estate executors may find it helpful to retain legal counsel to expedite estate settlement procedures for intestate estates.
Probate lawyers can also assist estate administrators in charge of testate estates. It can be beneficial to hire lawyers to assist with certain aspects of estate settlement such as transferring titled property or mediating family disputes.
Heirs have the right to contest the Will if decedents did not bequeath property they feel entitled to or if they were disinherited. Contesting Wills is a time-consuming and expensive process that can quickly bankrupt small estates.
Probate litigation can suspend inheritance assets in probate for several months. Oftentimes, estate executors are forced to sell inheritance property to pay legal fees. It is almost always best to negotiate out-of-court settlements to protect inheritance gifts and minimize legal fees.
At minimum, individuals should execute a last will and testament, along with a healthcare proxy and granting Power of Attorney rights. The Will is an essential element of estate planning and can be used to provide several directives. In addition to bequeathing inheritance gifts, the Will can provide direction for burial preferences; establish guardianship for minor children; and to disinherit heirs.
Estate planning strategies exist that can keep certain assets from passing through probate. These can include assigning beneficiaries to bank accounts, investment and retirement portfolios, and titled property or by gifting property prior to death.
The only way to completely avoid probate is by establishing a trust. A variety of trusts exist and most can be structured to suit personal needs. Establishing trusts requires services from a certified estate planner or attorney.
When property is transferred to a trust it is exempt from probate and assets can be distributed in a timely fashion. The last will and testament remains private when property is protected by a trust. With probate estates, the Will becomes a matter of public record.
Many people procrastinate about engaging in estate planning, but this can be a colossal mistake. While thinking about who will receive the fruits of your labor is not something most people relish, it is a necessity of life. Those who do not plan ahead will leave a mess for their loved ones that could result in heirs not receiving the items they deserve.
Probate professionals can make the process easier by offering advice and estate planning strategies. They can help execute a legal Will or establish a trust to ensure loved ones receive intended gifts while abiding by inheritance law.
Cornell University Law School: Uniform Probate Code