When you start to do some research into the topic of estate planning you will invariably see frequent mention of probate avoidance strategies. For people who deal with these matters professionally the term speaks for itself, but the layperson has no particular reason to know what probate is much less why you might want to avoid it.
Probate is the legal process that an estate must pass through before assets can be distributed according to the will of the deceased. If there is no will, the laws of your state determine how assets will be distributed. In the will you nominate an executor or personal representative. That person, or if there is no will, the person who desires to serve as personal representative, is required to present the court with a petition to be appointed. Once the court makes the appointment, this person is responsible for actually administering the estate, but he or she does so under the supervision of the probate or surrogate court.
The reasons that some people choose to implement strategies that enable probate avoidance are usually twofold. For one, there are a number of expenses that go along with probate. There are court costs, attorney fees, personal representative fees and bond fees. In addition, the final taxes of the deceased must be paid so an accountant is often necessary, and sometimes there are appraisers that must be paid as well as estate liquidators.
The other primary reason why probate avoidance strategies can be attractive is that probate can be time consuming. Depending on the complexity of the estate it can take anywhere from several months to several years for the estate to close. And of course, the heirs do not receive their inheritances until the probate process has been completed.
All of this having been said, probate serves a useful purpose. If anyone wants to contest the will or present an alternate will, they would do so in probate court. Consider a scenario when an octogenarian marries a twenty-something and then passes away three months later with a new will leaving everything to his new spouse. You can see how this person's children might be grateful for the opportunity to address the court.
Plus, even in uncontested cases, the supervision of the probate court ensures the transparency of transactions made on behalf of the estate by the executor. For some families, this additional protection is worth the extra expense and time of the probate process.