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Probate Lessons

Monday, September 02, 2013

What To Do When Someone Dies, Part 4: Should You Choose an Informal or Formal Probate Proceeding?

A Minnesota Probate Attorney Explains the Difference Between Informal and Formal Probate

As stated in my prior posts, there are many different paths to choose when an estate needs to go through probate in Minnesota.  One key decision is whether to take the formal or informal path. The terms informal and formal refer to the type of procedure used to appoint a personal representative to handle the decedent’s affairs and to accept a Will for probate.

Informal probate is the most commonly used form, and is easiest for parties to use when the assets are straightforward and when everyone involved gets along.

You should consider filing for a formal probate proceeding if any of the following apply:

  • problems with the will
  • unknown heirs
  • missing will
  • minor heirs
  • high probability for dispute between heirs
  • when there are expected to be problems with the administration.
  • if the estate is insolvent (meaning there is more debt than assets)
  • no one is trustworthy enough to handle matters

The informal probate process

The informal probate process commences when an applicant presents an application to a registrar instead of a judge. The application asks the registrar to appoint the personal representative and accept the will, if there is one. The registrar then approves the estate to proceed informally and makes sure the paperwork (e.g the will, petition for informal probate, affidavit of acceptance by personal representative, list of interested persons) is complete. The registrar is not involved between when the estate is approved and when the final accounting is due. This process has less oversight by the court and additional costs from hearings are not incurred.

The formal probate process

The formal process starts with a probate attorney filing a petition with the court on behalf of a petitioner asking a judge to: 1) determine the heirs of the deceased; 2) verify the validity of the will; and 3) appoint a personal representative.  Counties differ on whether the petitioner and attorney in a formal probate must appear in front of a district court judge so check with a probate attorney to verify the requirements in your county. After deciding to file for formal probate, a petitioner must also determine whether the estate should be supervised, meaning the court must sign off on any distributions to heirs before they are made, or unsupervised, meaning the personal representative does not need the court to approve anything before closing the estate.

Upon receipt of the petition for formal probate, the court reviews the paperwork and approves the Personal Representative. At that point, the personal representative is able to work to resolve all outstanding issues in the estate. Keep in mind that commencing a formal probate proceeding provides the petitioner with access to the judge later on if a judge’s signature is required on matters subsequent to the appointment of a personal representative. The formal process is generally more expensive due to consistent attorney intervention in obtaining the court’s approval and signature and in attending any required hearings.

The probate process can be complicated and confusing so it is a good idea for family members to meet with an experienced probate attorney to assist with making a decision on which probate process to pursue. Further, to minimize court involvement and ensure your "stuff" goes to the people of your choice, you must have a will.  Don't leave things to chance - or the State - and don't leave your loved ones with the added stress, and expense, of trying to figure out what you wanted.  Protect your family with an estate plan designed to limit hassle, delay and expense so decisions like choosing informal versus formal probate are easy allowing those left to focus on more important matters.


Monday, August 26, 2013

What To Do When Someone Dies, Part 3: What Type of Proceeding Do You Need?

A Minnesota Probate Attorney Covers the Different Proceedings Available to Handle an Estate

As discussed in my prior post, the personal representative starts a probate proceeding by filing an application or petition with the probate court.  But, prior to commencing probate, the personal representative must make a decision on what type of probate process to pursue.  Minnesota provides several different types of probate proceedings to address the variety of issues and needs which might arise. The type of proceeding to commence depends on such issues as determining the decedent’s heirs, the validity of a will, the types of assets in the estate and their value, the potential for disputed claims, and the desire to have a court oversee the personal representative’s actions. When more than one type of proceeding is permissible, it is important to select the one that best fits the specific needs of the decedent’s estate. There are five common types of probate proceedings in Minnesota.  This post will discuss three of them and the next post will address the remaining two.

Collection by Affidavit for Small Estates

Where the probate assets in an estate are $50,000 or less (and do not include any real estate), Minnesota allows a special process for you to collect those assets.  Under this procedure, known as Collection by Affidavit, the person entitled to receive the property signs a legal form stating that he or she is legally entitled to receive the specific asset listed in the Affidavit. When the properly executed affidavit is presented to the person, or institution, in possession of the property, those holding the asset are then authorized to deliver the property and be fully discharged of any further responsibility. This process can be complicated by the existence of creditors’ claims and therefore should not be done without legal counsel. Because a Collection by Affidavit can’t be used for real estate, you should contact an attorney to properly transfer the property.

Determination of Descent

If a person died more than three years ago and no probate proceeding was ever started, you may need to initiate a Determination of Descent proceeding before you will be able to transfer the decedent’s probate property. No personal representative is appointed. Instead, an attorney files a Petition for Determination of Descent with the court who then issues a decree ordering the property to be transferred according to the decedent’s will or, if no will, by statutes. This procedure is commonly used where the decedent is still in title to real property long after his or her death and the property was never transferred to the appropriate individuals.

Summary Administration

Some probate assets are exempt from the claims of creditors. When all the probate assets of the estate are exempt from creditors and the value of the assets do not exceed certain limits specified by law, summary administration may be available. Summary administration avoids a lengthy administration as no one needs to give notice to creditors. The statutes authorizing summary administration are quite restrictive. Because of this, it is infrequently available for a decedent’s estate.

The next post will explain what is meant by formal vs. informal probate proceedings.


Monday, August 19, 2013

What To Do When Someone Dies, Part 2: Opening a Probate

As I have received an increasing number of calls to assist family members and heirs in working through a loved ones estate, I decided to draft a series of blog posts directed at assisting you with handling things for someone who has died.

Step 1: Locate a will

This step in the journey begins with locating a will as the will contains the decedent’s instructions on the persons to be involved in the probate process.  Specifically, the will should nominate a personal representative to carry out the deceased’s wishes and provide the names of those chosen to receive assets.

Please note that these steps are largely the same whether or not a will is located.  What’s different then?  The difference is in the outcome.  With a will, the deceased’s stated wishes rule the day.  Without a will, the Minnesota State Legislature’s wishes trump any unwritten desires the deceased may have had.

Step 2: Choose the type of probate proceeding that’s most appropriate.

Next, a decision must be made as to the type of probate needed to carry out the person’s last wishes.  The types of probate are formal versus informal and supervised versus unsupervised.  We will discuss each of the types of probate in a later post in this series, but just know that the type of probate process chosen largely depends on how much court oversight may be needed in carrying out the decedent’s wishes. 

Step 3: Filing with the court

Once the decision is made as to whether to proceed formally or informally, an interested person (i.e. one who has a tangible interest in the outcome of the process) must file a petition/application with the probate registrar/court together with the original will.  Most likely, the person nominated as personal representative in the will files these documents. 

The  probate court will then review will to verify that it meets the requirements to be a valid legal will.  If there is doubt about the signature on the will, those who witnessed its execution may be forced to appear in court. As explained in prior posts, this can be avoided with the use of a self-proving affidavit.

The probate court will also look to the will to determine the deceased person’s choice for personal representative.  If there is no will, then the courts will appoint a personal representative.  The court will then issue a Notice of Probate.

 Step 4: Provide Notice of Probate

Upon receipt of the Notice from the court, the personal representative must provide that Notice to all heirs, regardless of whether they are named in the will, and to all those listed – individuals and charities – to receive assets.

The personal representative must also publish notice of the probate for two weeks in an approved newspaper. It is through this announcement that creditors are informed of the deceased’s death.  They have four months to announce claims to the monies belonging to the deceased.   Proof of publication and notice must be filed with the court. A later post will discuss claims and challenges to an estate.

Step 5: The Court Appoints a Personal Representative

Once the court accepts all the filings and verifies compliance with other requirements (e.g. notice and publication), the personal representative will be appointed with proof being provided by a document called the Letters Testamentary.  This document provide authorization to the personal representative – and reliance by institutions -  to move forward in handling the deceased’s legal and financial matters.

The next post will address the various types of probate proceedings and the factors involved in determining the best way to proceed.


Monday, August 12, 2013

You Took the Time to Draft Your Estate Plan, but Can Your Family Find the Essential Documents to Handle Things?

Minneapolis Estate Planning Attorney Explains the Need for Proper Storage of Your Estate Planning Documents

Think Treasure Hunts are Fun and Games? Think Again

You’ve had an attorney draft your estate planning documents, including your living trust and will. Probate avoidance and tax saving strategies have been implemented. Your documents are signed, notarized and witnessed in accordance with all applicable laws, and are stored in a location known to your chosen executor or estate administrator. Your work is done, right? Not exactly.

Although treasure hunts may be fun for youngsters, the fiduciaries of your estate will not find inventorying your assets to be nearly as exciting. When it comes time to settle your affairs, your estate representatives will be charged with the responsibility to gather and manage your assets, pay off debts and taxes, and distribute your assets to your named beneficiaries. This can be a tall order for an outsider who is likely unaware of the full scope of your assets.

If your fiduciaries cannot determine exactly what property you own, and its value and location, you are setting up your loved ones for a frustrating treasure hunt that can delay the settlement of your estate and rack up additional estate-related expenses. You may be remembered for the frustration of locating your assets, rather than the gifts made upon your death – not a legacy many wish to leave.

Instead, as you are establishing your estate plan take the extra time to record a comprehensive asset inventory and make sure those who will be responsible for settling your estate know where that inventory is stored. Do not presume that everything is handled once you meet with a lawyer and sign your documents. The legal instruments you have gone to the time, trouble and expense to prepare are practically worthless if your assets cannot be identified, located and transferred to your beneficiaries. However, creating a thoughtful asset inventory will aid your loved ones in closing your estate and honoring your memory.

Nobody knows better what assets you own than you. And who better than you to know an item’s value, age or location? Your fiduciaries may not have the benefit of tax or registration renewal notices for titled assets, and certainly won’t have copies of the titles or deeds – unless you provide them. It’s a good idea to include copies of the following items with your asset inventory:

  • Deeds to real property
  • Titles to personal property
  • Statements for bank, brokerage, credit card and retirement accounts
  • Stock certificates
  • Life insurance policy
  • Tax notices

For each of the above assets you should also list names and contact information for individuals who can assist with each the underlying assets, such as real estate attorneys, brokers, financial planners and accountants.

If your estate includes unique objects or valuable family heirlooms, a professional appraisal can help you plan your estate, and help your representatives settle your estate. If you have any property appraised, include a copy of the report with your asset inventory.

Care should be taken to continually update your asset inventory as things change. There will likely be many years between the time your estate plan is created and the day your fiduciaries must step in and settle your estate. Properties may be bought or sold, and these changes should be reflected in your asset inventory on an ongoing basis.
 


Thursday, February 07, 2013

Estate Planning Lessons, Part 1: Ownership of Property in Another State

As noted in a prior post, the year 2012 was a difficult one for me personally with the loss of both my parents. It has been emotional and trying to deal with the losses and then, on top of that, try to work through their estates with two different sets of family. This is the first post conveying some of the lessons I've learned in my continuing attempt to educate others about the need to work with someone to properly plan your estate.

Even the family of an estate planning attorney can be unprepared for an unexpected event. A week before my father's death I found out that he owned property in North Dakota.  It turns out that my great grandfather had land there and divided it up between his children who did the same all the way down the line so that now my siblings and I own a piece of North Dakota land. At least we will own it once we go through the probate process and have the deed changed to our names.

You may think "Well, you're an estate planning attorney so can't you just take care of that?" Unfortunately for us, I can't as I'm not licensed in North Dakota. So, now we will need to hire a North Dakota attorney several thousand dollars to get the property into our names. No, the irony is not lost on me.

So, this post is to urge you to talk to your loved ones about what you own or ask what they may own so that you can properly manage things now before it's too late. If I would have known about the North Dakota property earlier, I would have urged my Dad to get a trust and deed the property into it so that we would now be able to avoid the hassle, expense and pain of going through probate in another state.


Friday, December 28, 2012

Unique Estate Law: 2012 Wrap Up for a Nontraditional Law Firm

An Estate Planning Attorney Provides a Personal Review of 2012

The state of the firm

For Unique Estate Law 2012 was a fantastic year. The firm beat projections and I was able to assist more clients than ever before. I had referrals from a wide range of sources and a constant stream of clients coming through my website. I’ve done well enough to start advertising on a local radio station and in a local magazine. I have met many wonderful people and have given them guidance and peace of mind when facing an uncertain future.

Two major losses

But, for Chris Tymchuck, it was the worst year of my life.

Why was it such a bad year personally? In November both my Dad and Mom died within a week of each other. They were 66 and 64 respectively so it hadn’t occurred to the family that they might be gone so soon. While my father had battled cancer for 11 years he was in no worse shape in the end than in prior battles. And my Mom had never been sick a day in her life.

Why am I writing about this?

Why do I share such personal information on a law firm website? Because, it is a cautionary tale of what happens in a blended family when little or no preparation is done.

I was recently sharing my story with two clients and they said, “I can’t believe this is happening to you who spend your time making sure that people like us are ok and covered. You have to share your story with people so they understand that this can, and does, happen.” And they’re right.

I write this blog to assist clients and colleagues with things to consider when drafting estate plans for all types of families – both traditional and non-traditional – and the blog has paid off for me. I feel that, in keeping with the spirit in which I write I must use the lessons of 2012 to further education clients and colleagues through this medium. In short, to give back as the blog has given me so much.

Is it relevant to Unique Estate Law?

Why is my story relevant to this site? Because part of the reason that I specialize in non-traditional families is because I grew up in one – or several – and know the complications that come with being raised with in a complex web of interrelated (and sometimes not) people.

My parents divorced and each remarried and had kids with a subsequent spouse. In addition, my Mom remarried a third time and became a stepparent herself. So, that means I have a stepdad, stepmom, 3 half-brothers, a half-sister, a step brother and a step sister. That, of course, doesn’t include the “traditional” family members such as aunts, uncles and still-living grandparents. There are a lot of people to factor into planning, mourning and administering for someone.

I’ve spent the last couple of months grieving and assisting my family with working through the health care decisions, then memorials, estates and other issues associated with facing the illness and then death of parent. I plan to spend the next few posts discussing some of the lessons I’ve learned by being on the other side – education to practice so to speak – as my hope is to assist others to avoid some of the pitfalls we now face.

I can’t say that anything good has really come out of the losses I suffered this year but I will say that it confirmed my choice of profession. First, because I found relief in returning to work and assisting my clients and second because I feel that I use my law degree in the best possible way – to assist others to prepare for, and perhaps face, the worst times in their lives. For that I am grateful.


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From within Hennepin County Unique Estate Law represents estate planning and elder law clients throughout Minnesota, including Minneapolis, Edina, Bloomington, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, Plymouth, Wayzata, Maple Grove, St. Paul, and Brooklyn Park. The Minnesota law firm of Unique Estate Law focuses on all aspects of estate planning, including specialized wills, trusts, powers of attorney and medical directives for married couples, young families, blended families, single parents, gay families and those going through a divorce. Unique Estate Law also handles probate administration, asset protection, Medical Assistance planning, elder law, business succession planning, adoptions and cabin planning.



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