By Nancy Burner, Esq.
The legalities surrounding a Last Will and Testament stem from Roman times, when six witnesses affixed their personal seals to a will. The will was later validated by examining these seals to make sure they remained intact.
Today we use staples instead of seals, but, because the probate process remains so formal, many misconceptions exist. Let’s discuss some of the more prevalent myths surrounding probate that we encounter.
Myth: If I have a will, my estate doesn’t have to go through Probate.
While a will documents where your assets go at death, a will does not avoid probate. Probate is a Surrogate’s Court proceeding whereby a decedent’s Last Will and Testament is validated and given effect.
In New York, a will is admitted to probate after the Executor files a petition. The probate petition includes the original will, as well as a death certificate and funeral bill. Proper notice must be given to the individuals who would have inherited had the decedent died without a will.
The court issues “letters testamentary” which give the executor the authority to act. The executor opens an estate bank account, pays the debts of the estate and then makes distributions to the beneficiaries.
The only way to avoid probate is to place all assets into a trust or die owning only “non probate assets.” Non-probate assets are those held jointly or that list beneficiaries. Common non-probate assets with beneficiary designations are retirement accounts and life insurance policies. Not all types of accounts allow designated beneficiaries or transfers on death. Naming others as joint owners can have catastrophic drawbacks, such as capital gains tax and creditor issues. A revocable trust is the gold standard in avoiding probate.
Myth: I don’t need a will because my spouse will inherit everything.
The only way your spouse inherits everything is if you do not have children or grandchildren. People are often surprised to learn that if they have children, their spouse does not inherit all their assets.
In New York State, if someone is married with children and dies without a will, their spouse gets the first $50,000 and half of the remaining assets. The children split the other half amongst themselves. This means that without a will, minor children or children from a previous marriage inherit almost half of your assets.
This is not what most people expect or want. The only way to make sure your spouse inherits 100% of your assets is to draft a will or trust.
The probate process can be avoided if the couple owns all assets jointly. Joint ownership has its own problems — especially considering estate taxes or if there are children from a previous marriage.
The probate process may sound confusing, but the procedure is easy and orderly with the help of an estate attorney. One of the kindest things you can do for your family is to draft a well-thought-out estate plan so that your assets pass in an orderly manner. At Burner Law Group, we charge flat fees so that clients fully understand their options and receive an estate plan custom tailored to them.
Nancy Burner, Esq. is the founder and managing partner at Burner Law Group, P.C with offices located in East Setauket, Westhampton Beach, New York City and East Hampton.