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Reasons to Choose Going to Probate

Law: Gavel, books, wood

As an estate planning attorney, most of my clients are meeting with me to help avoid probate as much as possible. I have written previous posts all about how to avoid probate. However, sometimes, probate can be beneficial in certain circumstances.

A lot of estates go through probate, which is the court process to distribute assets and pay off debts when someone has passed. Unless there was planning ahead, when most people die where they leave behind real property and assets, their estate will typically go through the probate process. A Personal Representative will be appointed, and the Will will be filed with the court. If there is no will, the assets will be distributed through the state’s “will” – which is called intestate.

If you are a beneficiary of the estate, you may be surprised by the long, drawn-out court procedure which you are at the mercy of. In Oklahoma, a typical probate now lasts around 4-6 months unless it is contested or if selling real estate is involved (which can prolong the process). However, the probate proceeding serves several purposes and once you understand them, it can make it easier to accept the waiting period.

Once the will is validated, the next step in the probate process is to appoint an executor whose responsibility will be to collect the estate’s assets, appraise the assets value, pay creditors, file taxes (if necessary) and finally, distribute the property to the beneficiaries or heirs according to the Will or the state statutes. What is beneficial about Probate is that is a court-monitored proceeding in which the Personal Representative is not only supervised, but he or she must comply with specific procedures and legal requirements. For estates where there may not be a trustworthy person to take control, this is a huge benefit. Even for estates where everyone is honest, having a court oversee everything makes it to where there cannot even be the appearance of impropriety. The court won’t allow dishonorable or unethical conduct by personal representatives/executors.

There are more benefits to probate, though. Personal Representatives are required to provide accountings, unless waived by all the beneficiaries/heirs. The court requires all of the beneficaries’ names, ages and residences, and all the beneficiaries are legally required notice of the court proceedings and any and all court dates. Probate also allows any person interested in the estate to contest the Will.

One note about contesting a Will should be made, however. A beneficiary or heir can contest a Will for reasons which include: 1) mental incapacity of the decedent to make a will, 2) duress, 3) fraud, 4) undue influence, and 5) any other reasons questioning the validity of the will. Beneficiaries and heirs cannot contest based solely on that they do not like what the Will says, because will-makers are allowed to make a will that includes their wishes, but they can be contested based on that the will-maker was not in the right mind to make a Will.

For more information regarding the probate process and how it can protect the rights of beneficiaries, contact our attorney at the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC.

Oklahoma Small Estate Affidavit

U.S. Coins and Paper Money

Oklahoma permits the distribution of a small estate without probate, if the estate is worth $50,000 or less in total. There are two ways to avoid probate using affidavits in Oklahoma – one for financial accounts, one for personal property.

The first type of “Small Estate Affidavit” allowed in Oklahoma is one for financial accounts worth a total of $50,000 or less. This affidavit is authorized by 6 OS § 906. Banks, credit unions and savings and loan associations are permitted under Oklahoma statutory law to pay out bank accounts under Fifty-Thousand Dollars ($50,000) upon affidavit. The account must be in the name of a sole individual (not two persons) and also have no beneficiary designated. An original certified death certificate must be presented along with an affidavit, and the affidavit must establish the time and place of death and residence of the decedent. Also, the affidavit must state that the decedent did not leave a will. If the decedent left a will, probate will be necessary. The affidavit must set out the names of the heirs of the decedent. The affidavit must be signed and sworn to by at least one of the known heirs of the decedent.

Oklahoma also allows an affidavit to take the place of probate for the distribution of tangible personal property (property other than money or land) or an instrument evidencing a debt, obligation, stock, chose in action, or stock brand belonging to the decedent upon the presentment of an affidavit. This form of affidavit is authorized by 58 OS § 393. The limit is also $50,000, so any debt or personal property worth more than that must go through probate. Any person indebted to the decedent is authorized to accept the affidavit and make the distribution, so this affidavit can also be used for creditors as well as heirs at law. Anyone who is a successor to the decedent may sign the affidavit. The affidavit must state (1) the fair market value of property located in this state owned by the decedent and subject to disposition by will or intestate succession at the time of the decedent’s death, less liens and encumbrances, does not exceed Twenty Thousand Dollars; (2) No application or petition for appointment of a personal representative is pending or has been granted in any jurisdiction; (3) Each claiming successor is entitled to payment or delivery of the property in the respective proportions set forth in the affidavit; and All taxes and debts of the decedent’s estate have been paid or otherwise provided for or are barred by the statute of limitations. Like the first affidavit mentioned, you must also present an original certified death certificate along with the affidavit. This affidavit would be useful for the transfer of household contents, a vehicle, a stock brokerage account or the transfer of private or public corporate stock which does not exceed $50,000.

The attorney at the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC can help you get these small assets out of probate by drafting a valid Small Estate Affidavit that can keep you out of probate. Call our office today!

(Minor) Children in Your Estate Planning

Travelers with Baby in StrollerWhen handling people’s estate plans, I am often asked how life insurance, retirement accounts, and other “beneficiary” property should be handled with regards to the young children. More often than not,  people with children want some or all of the proceeds of these accounts to go to their minor children.

For example, if a client has a $100,000 life insurance policy and has a minor child of 5 years old, she would most likely tell me or the insurance agent that she wants her child to be the beneficiary of the life insurance. The questions presented in this situation are:

  1. What happens to the money and any other property when her minor child inherits or receives it?
  2. Is there a better way to handle life insurance proceeds or other property that you want to leave to a child?

To answer the first question presented, let’s look at Oklahoma’s law on minors. Children or minors are legally incapable of holding and managing that property until the reach the age of majority, which, in Oklahoma, is the age 18. While they are still considered minors in Oklahoma, any property or money a minor owns must be managed by another person, such as a guardian or custodian. IMPORTANTLY, for the most part, the financial institutions will require the guardian to go to court and receive Letters of Guardianship  before the institution will release the funds into the guardian’s control. This applies to parents. Therefore, if a grandparent left a minor as a beneficiary of an account, the minor’s parent would have to go through the court process of Guardianship (which can be expensive), before the parent will gain control of the minor’s assets. This is an expensive complication to leaving an asset to a minor child, because court processes comes with attorney fees, accounting fees, filing fees, just to name a few.

In the above scenario, when the child turns 18, he or she can take over the management and control of the property or money. Oklahoma law generally does not require a specific level of financial literacy, planning, or common sense to manage or control your own property. Thus, the young teenager may squander the monies that was given to them very quickly, since they have full control of it once they turn 18. And how many 18 year old teenagers do you know that would know how to handle a lump sum of $100,000 responsibly?

THE GOOD NEWS is that there are other, more responsible approaches to leaving minors an inheritance. Rather than naming your child directly to receive the proceeds of a life insurance policy, or any other beneficiary account, you can set up a revocable or irrevocable trust that has your minor child as a beneficiary. This allows you to provide for appropriate use and management of the property with certain guidelines and control that will not let the minor child to squander their inheritance, and it won’t include any court process or fees. Unlike custodial arrangements discussed above, a trust does not necessarily terminate at age 18 and can continue to provide supervised management of the property into adulthood, including planning for education and other life-events. To read more about trusts, read a previous article by our attorney here.

The Trustee, or the person who manages the trust’s money and property, can also be empowered to use the Trust’s money for the benefit of the child, without the need and cost of court supervision. This can be helpful because it allows you to have more control over the types of expenses you want to provide for your child, including health, education, and general expenses one might occur as a young adult.

Remember, selecting a beneficiary for any type of monetary account is an important decision with potentially far-reaching consequences. There are important legal implications depending on your choice. Selecting a beneficiary is part of your overall estate plan, and the attorney at the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC can help plan for your minor children or grandchildren. Call our office at to speak to our attorney today!

Oklahoma’s Simplified Probate

probateIf you do not have a Revocable Living Trust, your estate will  need to be probated or be small enough for a simple affidavit. Probate is the legal process required for estate administration and asset distribution.  To read more specifically about what probate is, read our previous post “what is probate.”

One important thing about about probate is that is is time-consuming and typically expensive. There are court costs, publishing fees, and of course attorney fees. For this reason many people are able to shrink their probate estate using simple ways to avoid probate like beneficiary designations or a revocable living trust. A trust allows you to put all your assets into a trust, you then name a successor trustee to take over when you are incapacitated or pass, and your named beneficiaries who would receive distributions without having to go through court. It’s usually very simple and clean.

Simplified Probate

Regular probate is most likely going to be necessary for most people with a normal sized estate. However,  those who have a smaller amount of assets may be able to pass along property outside of probate altogether or through the utilization of a simplified probate procedure. In Oklahoma,  if the estate is worth less than $20,000,  a simple affidavit can be used to claim the estate after a ten day waiting period.

For estates larger than $20,000 and smaller than $150,000, Oklahoma allows for a “Simplified  Probate.” The executor or executrix can contact the probate court to request simplified probate if the estate that he or she is administering is valued at less than $150,000 ($175,000 beginning November 1, 2013). This includes all personal property as well as other assets. The benefits are that it is quicker than normal probate and the attorney fees will be less.

Whether your estate is too large for simplified probate or small enough, the best way to make sure your affairs are in order is to contact a qualified estate planning attorney. The attorney of the Skillern Law Firm can help you plan out your estate so your heirs are taken care of in the best and efficient manner possible. Call our office today!

How to Handle Titled Transportation Vehicles to Skip Probate

car picMost people know how to put beneficiary designations on their accounts to skip that asset from going to probate. Most of the time, it is a one or two page form that the financial institution provides you. (See more about that at our post about Beneficiary Designations). However, one type of asset that is often left behind is an automobile, boat, or any other titled vehicle. One particularly useful procedure that Oklahoma allows in these cases is the “No Administrator Affidavit” that is available from the Motor Vehicle Division of the Oklahoma Tax Commission through tag agencies  in cities across Oklahoma. You can complete this form and attach a certified copy of the death certificate, and then the affiant (person who signed the affidavit) may obtain title to a vehicle, boat or outboard motor where there is no probate or administration proceeding and no other person would have a prior right.

If your estate is not large enough to justify paying for a Revocable Trust, you should look into how to set up your estate in a way that would make probate less strenuous on your family, or skip it all-together.

If you would like to know more about how to do this, or if you need to set up a Revocable Living Trust, please call the office of The Skillern Law Firm, PLLC today at (918) 805-2511.

It’s Important to Update your Estate Planning After A Divorce

Most couples, especially married couples, get their estate planning done together and draft them accordingly. Most of the time, married couples will get a Family Trust, rather than two individual Trusts, and all the beneficiaries/executors/trustees are listed as each other. After the unfortunate event of a divorce, it is extremely important to get your estate planning updated to reflect your life change. Most people’s wishes and ideas about who should receive and manage your property after your death changes after a divorce. The only way to effectively express that intent is to have a new estate plan drafted.

When you get divorced, you absolutely need to update your estate plan. Oklahoma law provides some safeguards for Wills, Trusts, and certain beneficiary designations. Under Oklahoma law, your former spouse does not benefit under your will or Trust, only if your Will or Trust follow the requirements of Oklahoma law. However, these few safeguards are incomplete and will not change your estate plan to exclude your ex-spouse in some situations. The default rule will not revoke any gifts to relatives of your ex-spouse, for example.

It is important to update your Will and/or Trust after a divorce, because the default Oklahoma rules that may or may not apply, and an experienced estate planning attorney will know which ones need updating. One of the best ways to express your new wishes after the divorce is to create or amend your estate plan. This way, you are able to accurately express your new intent with your estate, since divorce usually changes your intent (i.e. leaving the ex-spouse out), and this will ensure that your wishes are clearly communicated.

One important thing to update after a divorce is beneficiary designations on accounts. When you select beneficiaries for life insurance, retirement plans, or bank accounts, you are making a legally significant decision. After you pass away, the institution holding the account will look at your account information, including the death beneficiary, and distribute accordingly. Ex-spouses, if not changed on the account, have a strong chance of benefiting from the account.  Divorce has an very limited effect, if any, on these beneficiary type arrangements.

For example, most people hold a lot of assets in their IRA, 401(k), or other retirement plan. Most people do not realize that these retirement plans are governed by Federal law, and no state (including Oklahoma) can use a divorce decree/order to overcome the beneficiary designation on your retirement plan. This means your ex-spouse will benefit if the beneficiary is not changed. You absolutely have to change the beneficiaries after a divorce decree is final to express your new intent.

Most people have many other things on their minds if they have just gone through a divorce, but it is very important to contact an estate planning attorney, or be active in keeping your estate plan up-to-date. Please contact the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC if you need your estate plan updated or created.

Life Insurance And Your Estate Planning

Most people know what life insurance is and what it does for you. However, if you do not, let’s go over the basics. Life insurance is insurance that you can pay a monthly fee for that will pay a beneficiary an amount of money after you pass away. The amount of money paid at the time of death is known as the death benefit, and the expense of the monthly payment usually depends on the total death benefit amount.

Within life insurance, there are two major different types of life insurance: term life and whole life. Term life insurance has level premiums for a specified term of years, and then the premiums usually increase dramatically after the initial term (10, 20, 30 years). “Whole” or “permanent” life insurance commonly has level terms for life, and includes an investment element that can be used to reduce premiums,  purchase additional death benefit, or can be taken as cash dividends by the policy owner. Whole life insurance premuiums are more expensive then term life, but there are added benefits.

A life insurance agent can help you decide which policy or policies are best for you. However, estate planning attorneys are there to help make sure that your policy is effectively used in your estate plan, and help set up the best legal structure for the death benefit, as well as help you make a decision as to who should own the policy.

How is life insurance taxed?

Unless Congress or the State of Oklahoma changes the income tax law (which could very well happen in 2013), life insurance’s death benefit is usually received by the individual beneficiary income tax free. However, life insurance money can be subject to the estate tax and generation skipping transfer tax, if the deceased insured had any “incidents of ownership” in the life insurance policy. Since there is a possibility of estate taxes, it is important to consult with an estate planning attorney prior to selecting ownership of the policy and making beneficiary designations.

How to use life insurance in your estate planning.

Life insurance can be used in several ways in your estate plan. Life insurance is very helpful, since it provides additional or supplemental inheritance money to your heirs, besides a home or your savings money. Some of the estate planning uses of life insurance include:

  • Life insurance provides liquidity to pay administration expenses or debts, so your house or accounts would not have to be sold or split up to pay for estate costs.
  • Life insurance also provides liquidity to purchase assets from other trusts or probate estates. This can occur when there is real estate or business interests that the family wants to keep in the family.
  • Life insurance can provide a trust estate for people still in the accumulation phase of life, usually a minor or young adult. You can put the life insurance in a trust to be held in trust, rather then given in a lump sum.
  • Leveraging the value of the gift tax annual exclusion and exemption, and generation skipping transfer tax exemption, life insurance could potentially allow you to transfer larger amounts of wealth than you could with a straight, outright transfer.

Basically, life insurance is a helpful asset to include in your estate plan. If you already have life insurance, consult with an estate planning lawyer to see how to maximize the benefit of your life insurance in your estate plan. If you do not have  life insurance, consider discussing life insurance with an estate planning attorney and/or insurance agent to see what type of insurance policy integrates well with your estate plan. Contact the Skillern Law Firm office today and set up your free consultation.

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