We’re All Going to Die!

By Claire Smith

It’s true, the inevitable will arrive for us all! So consider your heirs. To be in grief and not have any direction on where to start to settle a deceased family member’s affairs can be crippling. Think of your legacy, what can we do to ease these moments for our loved ones? We can PLAN!

People have various motivations for estate planning. Some might want to alleviate potential familial discord, some might want to ease the burden on their children — and nobody wants the rewards of a lifetime gobbled up by attorneys and the State of California in Probate Court. This can happen if you don’t properly delegate distribution of your assets.

Why is probate so scary? Because it sucks up time and money and it’s a huge headache. Who wants to go to court? Think of the burden you will bequeath to your heirs when you leave assets with no official place to go. When you die the court has to see if anyone has a claim on your property. By statute, probate fees are based on the gross value of the estate. To keep the math easy let’s use a million dollar home as an example. In probate there will be attorney fees and pay for a designated “Estate Representative” who can be a family member or close friend who coordinates the process; if there is no one the court deems suitable, the state will appoint someone. For our $1 million dollar home, the fee would be $33,000 to the probate attorney and $33,000 to the Estate Representative. If a “court approved” sale is necessary, and someone contests ownership, or there are other complications and no designated heirs, it will take 12-18 months to complete right of possession and it will cost at least $66,000. Will loved ones afford $66,000 to gain possession of your property or would they have to sell the property to pay these fees?

I’ve been in real estate for 17 years and used to think that trusts were only for people with lots of money. With lawyers involved, it seemed financially out of reach for me, but a trust will keep you out of probate. You can get one done for less than $400 through online legal service sites, but beware, there are many kinds of trusts, and I recommend you confer with an expert. What does a trust do? For Real Estate, a trust holds the property so it will pass to your “Successor Trustee” avoiding probate. Once a property is in a trust, the successor trustee can continue with mortgage payments, insurance, repairs, anything the home needs. The trust owns the home – not an individual. When the owner passes away, the successor trustee becomes the guardian.

What about a will? A will gives you control of who you leave your assets to, but not how or when they get those assets. All assets not held in a trust are subject to the California probate process. A will is better than no document, but a trust is the most comprehensive way to avoid probate and make your wishes known. Do you NEED a trust? Every situation is different, you really need to consult a professional and decide what is right for you. Before you do, look up “setting up a trust in California” online, there are several types of trust designed to fit varying needs.

Another way to avoid probate on your real estate is to hold joint title. I bought my first house in Altadena in 2003, before I was in real estate. I remember escrow asking me how I’d like to “hold title.”

I had no idea what that meant or what the future implications could be. Know that there are five main ways to hold title in California and every home buyer should research what type of holding is right for them. But I HIGHLY recommend more than a single owner. That includes “Right of Survivorship” or “Transfer on Death” deed that are less costly than trusts to avoid probate. But they work only for property, and you must then make separate plans for bank accounts and other assets, medical directives, etc.

What if you do nothing and have only your name on your deed? It’s quite gratifying to hold title as the sole owner, testimony to all of your hard work in black and white! I had a client and dear friend who bought his dream house for $1.7 million in the Hollywood Hills. When it came time to decide how to hold title I suggested creating a trust or to just put his Mom on the title with “Right of Survivorship.” He was so proud and excited and told me that he knew he needed a trust and would get to it. He closed escrow in August 2019. At the age of 49 in July 2020 he suffered a brain aneurysm and died. Because he’d made no arrangements, his mother had to endure a year of probate on top of losing her beloved only child.

For finances, you can designate a beneficiary with “TOD” or “Transfer on Death” that will grant your heirs access to your funds for the “final arrangements.” You do this directly with every bank and investment firm where you have accounts. Talk directly to your bank representative to learn your options and what they suggest regarding establishing beneficiaries versus setting up a financial trust. Be sure to keep records in an easy-to-find place or give copies to trusted loved ones. A beneficiary will usually have instant access to your funds which is helpful, especially if your end of life plans have not been arranged.

For all of us, what’s next is the great unknown. It isn’t just death, but what if you become mentally incapable of making decisions? That’s why a trust is best, it provides for many situations: Advanced Medical Directives, final wishes, memorial plans, who to contact and in what order, passwords to accounts and more. You don’t always need a trust but it is a great way to have everything in one place. I’m not an estate lawyer, just someone that has seen easy transitions of property and many that were unnecessarily hard. Each person and situation is individual and I encourage you to research which steps are best for you. Most important is to ACT! Your loved ones will sing your praises for it.