Last week’s blog discussed the process of probating an estate. This week we will continue that theme and discuss the distribution of an estate when the decedent has and has not left a Will. Later this week we will continue discussing estate administration with a look at the benefits of establishing a buy sell agreement for clients with interests in small (and not so small) businesses.
As we previously discussed, the probate process can be both lengthy and expensive, but eventually the appointed personal representative is able to make distributions from the estate to the designated beneficiaries. If the decedent left a Will, those beneficiaries are the people named in the Will. If the decedent died without a Will, then state law dictates the distribution of the estate.
After giving effect to the statutory allowances that we discussed in last week's blog, the personal representative first makes distributions to the decedent's surviving spouse. The size of the share distributed to the surviving spouse depends on the decedent’s other surviving relatives. The spouse is entitled to:
- The entire intestate estate if no descendant (child or grandchild) or parent of the decedent survives the decedent.
- The first $150,000.00, plus 1/2 of any balance of the intestate estate, if all of the decedent's surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse and there is no other descendant of the surviving spouse who survives the decedent.
- The first $150,000.00, plus 3/4 of any balance of the intestate estate, if no descendant of the decedent survives the decedent, but a parent of the decedent survives the decedent.
- The first $150,000.00, plus 1/2 of any balance of the intestate estate, if all of the decedent's surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse and the surviving spouse has 1 or more surviving descendants who are not descendants of the decedent.
- The first $150,000.00, plus 1/2 of any balance of the intestate estate, if 1 or more, but not all, of the decedent's surviving descendants are not descendants of the surviving spouse.
- The first $100,000.00, plus 1/2 of any balance of the intestate estate, if none of the decedent's surviving descendants are descendants of the surviving spouse.
For individuals with estates under $150,000.00, the law provides the surviving spouse is entitled to all of the assets. However, for larger estates, the intestate distribution statutes may result in distributions, to parents or children, which the decedent would not have intended.
Speaking of unintended distributions to children, it is important to note that if an asset in the probate process passes to a minor child, that asset must be held in trust until the minor child reaches age 18, at which point the child, whether mature enough or not, receives the remainder of that asset outright and free of trust. In addition to the potential problem of providing a lump sum of money to an 18-year-old, the probate court requires that the personal representative provide an annual accounting of those assets to the court until the child turns 18. As with every other aspect of the probate process filing these accountings takes more of the personal representative’s time and has a financial cost.
Clearly, there are potential problems that arise when a decedent does not have a Will. Some of these, such as unintended distributions to parents or children as opposed to the surviving spouse, and large distributions to children upon reaching age 18, may be avoided by executing a. However, other problems such as the financial costs and reporting burdens exist as long as the Probate Court remains involved in the administration of an estate.
As we have advocated in our writings on this blog and in our practice, clients can avoid almost all of these issues through proper planning and the use of a Living Trust. The Living Trust ensures that the decedent’s decisions govern the distribution of their assets and does not rely on a one size fits all approach that can result in unanticipated consequences. Additionally, because a Living Trust is a private agreement there is no involvement of the probate court, which can expose the decedent's assets and distribution decisions to public scrutiny. Furthermore, the Trust's private nature allows for greater ease in making distributions following death and avoids the costs associated with long-term administration of an estate through the Probate Court if the client desires to hold assets in trust until such time as their beneficiaries can handle those assets responsibly.
Keep in mind that each individual's needs are different and estate planning should not become a one size fits all commodity. It is important for clients to meet with experienced experts in planning fields and discuss their desires regarding assets after their death so that the client can receive advice best suited to their particular situation.