Q: My mom passed away a few months ago. She had a will that leaves everything to me and my sister equally. That means we don’t have to go through probate, right?
A: I wish I could get a hold of the person who started this tale: “If you have a will, you do not need to go through probate.” This is one of the most common misconceptions among our clients. I am happy to dispel this rumor once and for all!
The concept of ‘going through probate’ actually has nothing at all to do with whether or not you have a will. A will is simply a document that outlines who you would like to receive your assets when you pass away. A will states who you would like to serve as your personal representative (formerly known as executor), whether you have specific instructions about the distribution of certain assets and if you have minor children, who you would like to serve as guardian for those children. If you do not have a will, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has one for you. This is called the intestacy statute. However, you may not agree with what the intestacy statute says—sometimes its terms are surprising. Having a will overrides the intestacy law and allows you to state clearly what your wishes are once you pass away. It can also make the probate process run more smoothly as it allows you to make certain elections in the document (such as a waiver of surety on a bond or license to sell real estate) which can often expedite the whole process.
The answer to your question lies not in the having or not having of a will but rather what assets a will controls and what processes you have to go through to gain access to certain assets when a person passes away. This is where probate comes in. A will only has control over probate assets—these are assets that are held in the deceased person’s sole name with no joint owners and no named beneficiaries. Most IRAs, 401Ks, life insurance policies and investment accounts give the owner the ability to name a beneficiary. This beneficiary designation takes priority over the terms of the will with respect to that particular asset. Even better, the beneficiary often has immediate access to the asset upon providing a death certificate. Likewise, assets titled in the name of a trust are non-probate assets which pass according to the terms of the trust and not the decedent’s will. Therefore, these assets are not subject to the probate process either.
So, the act of going through probate is only required if the deceased person has probate assets (remember—assets with no joint owner, named beneficiary and not held in a trust). The will is the roadmap that determines how the probate process will play out but having a will, in and of itself, does not avoid probate. There you go—this myth is BUSTED!