Technically, probate means proving that someone’s will was actually their will. However, the term is commonly used to describe the court procedures necessary to administer an estate. Even if you die without a will (called “intestate”), your estate still must be probated.
There are three main objectives to probate:
- Marshalling the decedent’s assets.
- Pay any outstanding bills and resolve disputed creditor issues.
- Oversee the distribution of the estate according to the decedent’s will if there was one, or by the applicable state intestacy laws if there is no will.
The advantage of probate is that once the process is completed, the family members can be more confident that all of the decedent’s affairs are closed and no outstanding issues are left unresolved. The disadvantage of probate is that the intricacies of the decedent’s estate will be made a matter of public record, including the type and amount of the estate. Probate can also be time consuming and expensive, depending on the size of the estate and the possibility of any disputes. An attorney is usually involved to assist in the probate process and such fees must also be paid from the estate.
Probate can be avoided by titling your assets into a living trust that you create during your lifetime. Once you die, the assets held in your trust are distributed to the beneficiaries you have designated within the trust document. This process is handled outside probate and is supervised by whomever you have named as Successor Trustee of your trust after you die. However, the living trust process is only useful in avoiding probate for the assets that are actually titled into the legal name of your trust. It is quite common for someone to have a living trust drawn up, and then never transfer the title of their assets into the name of the trust. You can theoretically title anything into your living trust: your house, boat, car, brokerage account, coin collection, etc.