Estate planning can be a challenging process, but it only becomes more difficult if legal issues arise that require resolution in probate court. Setting your affairs in order to make sure things run smoothly after your passing can be a delicate process, and estate planning mistakes can cause costly and painful delays for your loved ones as they work to carry out your last wishes. Having a good estate planning attorney on your side can help you avoid some of the common estate planning mistakes that force people into probate court. But before you start searching for the best estate planning lawyer near you, it’s helpful to understand a bit about what probate courts do and how people end up having to deal with them.
What is Probate Court?
The American judicial system is huge. In the federal court system alone, there are 94 district courts where parties in federal cases can bring their disputes and 13 circuit courts to hear appeals. Each state has its own court system, as do most municipalities. These courts are responsible for reviewing the estimated 40 million lawsuits filed each year in the United States, which is a massive burden. In order to increase the speed and efficiency of judicial review, lawmakers have established courts of special jurisdiction.
All courts are limited by their legal jurisdiction, but some courts only hear issues specific to a particular legal subject matter. Probate courts, for example, only review the legal enforceability of wills, trusts, and related matters. They determine validity of specific terms and documentation in a decedent’s estate plan and they hear disputes over wills. Probate courts also mange the dispensation of assets owned by people who died without planning a will.
Probate courts can provide critical legal services to people who are struggling to carry out a deceased loved one’s final wishes, and they are an important part of the American judicial process. However, like any court proceeding, going through probate court can be costly, time-consuming, and stressful. Unfortunately, ending up before a probate court is often a matter of failing to effectively manage common issues in estate planning.
Common Ways People End Up in Probate Court
Planning an estate can be a complex legal matter, and it’s easy to fall into common pitfalls in estate planning. Experts recommend that people plan their estate with a licensed attorney that specializes in estate planning or elder law and update them at least once every three years. If you prepared your estate plan without the assistance of an estate planning lawyer or haven’t updated it in several years, your final affairs will more likely than not end up including costly mistakes.
There are several common mistakes people make that cause them to end up in probate court. Anyone who passes away without a will is likely to have their estate settled in probate court. But of course, there are plenty of ways to end up in probate court even if you had made prior efforts to plan your estate. For example, many people rely only on wills to plan their final estates. Most people should include a will as part of their estate plan, but this is only one piece of the puzzle. Relying only on a will in setting your final affairs in order can leave important questions unanswered, and often this requires the intervention of a probate court.
Of course, probate courts can be helpful. They resolve disagreements that arise regarding how estates should be handled, and they are a critical safeguard against fraud and other improper behavior among the parties involved in the execution of a will. Probate courts offer the final word on the resolution of an estate, which can be an extremely difficult process for everyone involved. However, there are several reasons why you would want to avoid probate court.
Why Avoid Probate Court?
In some cases, probate court review cannot be avoided. Many jurisdictions have streamlined probate procedures, which minimizes the disruptive impact this process can have on your loved ones and the management of your assets. While probate court issues are pending, your beneficiaries are left uncertain about when and whether their inheritances will be dispersed. To minimize the legal and financial impacts of your passing on your loved ones, it’s best to avoid probate court issues to the extent possible.
The probate court process can be costly, time-consuming, and stressful. Some assets avoid probate simply by nature of how they are maintained. For example, most retirement accounts, life insurance benefits, annuities, and jointly-owned property can be conveyed at your passing without the intervention of a probate court. Relying on a trust rather than a will can also help you avoid probate, and many estate plans include a living trust in order to prevent costly and stressful probate court issues in the future.
However, the time and expense of court proceedings are not the only problems with proceeding through probate court. Estates resolved by probate courts become a matter of public record. This means that personal information like how much your estate was worth at the time of your passing, what debts you owed, and how you divided your assets among your loved ones can not be kept private. Your net worth at the time of your death and how much you left to your kids becomes public information, and anyone can find out about your personal financial matters with a simple court inquiry or internet search.
Many people cringe at the idea of having their private financial matters made public after their passing, but even if you prefer to have things out in the open avoiding or minimizing the role of a probate court in the dispensation of your estate is often a wise choice. Probate courts are often the final authority on the dispensation of the assets in your estate, and they can easily misinterpret your final wishes. Working with a licensed estate planning attorney is the only way to make sure you avoid the costly missteps that will force the beneficiaries and executors of your estate into probate court.
M&A Law Firm provides estate planning services for clients in Cook County, Dupage County, Will County, Dupage County and Lake County. Our attorneys help clients manage their estate plans throughout the Chicagoland area and surrounding suburbs, and the attorneys that make up the firm have all of the answers you need to your estate planning questions. Avoid the costly and stressful probate process to the extent you can while providing for the ones in your life that you love the most with a well-planned estate. If you don’t have a formal estate plan, or it’s been more than three years since you updated it, contact M&A Law Firm as soon as possible to make arrangements.