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Estate Planning typically protects your wealth and assets by minimizing potential taxes and fees, sets up contingency planning to make sure your wishes regarding health care treatment are followed, manages and administers your estate and appropriately distributes your assets to your intended heirs.
A good estate plan also coordinates what would happen with your home, your investments, your business, your life insurance, your employee benefits-such as a 401(k) plan or Investment Retirement Account (IRA)-and other property in the event you became disabled, incompetent or if you die.
On the personal side, a good estate plan includes directions to carry out your wishes regarding health care matters, so that if you ever are unable to give the directions yourself, someone you select would do that for you, and know when you would want them to authorize heroic measures and when you would prefer that life sustaining machines be shut down.
Wills are the most common way for people to state their preferences about how their estates should be handled after their deaths. Many people use their wills to express their deepest sentiments toward their loved ones. A well-written will eases the transition for survivors by transferring property quickly and avoiding many tax burdens. Despite these advantages, many estimates figure that at least seventy percent of Americans do not have valid wills. While it is difficult to contemplate mortality, many people find that great peace of mind results from putting their affairs in order.
Although probate customs and laws have changed over time, the purpose has remained much the same: people formalize their intentions as to the transfer of their property at the time of their death (typically in a will), their property is collected, certain debts are paid from the estate, and the property is distributed.
Today the probate process is a court-supervised process that is designed to sort out the transfer of a person's property at death. Property subject to the probate process is that owned by a person at death, which does not pass to others by designation or ownership (i.e. life insurance policies and "payable on death" bank accounts). A common expression you may have heard is "probating a will." This describes the process by which a person shows the court that the decedent (the person who died) followed all legal formalities in drafting his or her will. What is often taught about the probate process is how to avoid it. The movement to avoid probate is primarily motivated by the desire to avoid probate fees. It is, in fact, quite possible to avoid the probate process completely. There are three primary ways to avoid probate and its protections: joint ownership with the right of survivorship, gifts, and revocable trusts. The probate system, however, exists for the protection of all the parties involved and the focus of this article is what occurs in probate.
The probate process may be contested or uncontested. Most contested issues generally arise in the probate process because a disgruntled heir is seeking a larger share of the decedent's property than that he or she actually received. Arguments often raised include: the decedent may have been improperly influenced in making gifts, the decedent did not know what they were doing (insufficient mental capacity) at the time the will was executed, and the decedent did not follow the necessary legal formalities in drafting his or her will. The majority of probated estates, however, are uncontested. The basic process of probating an estate includes:
Usually, the decedent names a person (executor) to take over the management of his or her affairs upon death. If the decedent fails to name an executor, the court will appoint a personal representative, or administrator, to settle the estate. The administrator will fulfill many of the same duties listed above.
Typically, people may leave property to any person they wish, and may make such designations in their will. However, in certain situations, depending on the relationship to the decedent and the laws of the state, the decedent's wishes may have to be overridden by the court. For example, in most states, a spouse is entitled to a certain amount of property. Furthermore, creditors may have a claim on the property of the estate. Each jurisdiction usually prescribes how long an estate must be open to give creditors an adequate time frame in which to present claims to the estate. The more complex and sizable the estate, the longer and more time-consuming this process can be.
The probate process itself also carries with it a number of costs that are usually paid out of estate assets. These costs include: Fees of the personal representative; Attorneys' fees; and Court costs.