When new or returning clients come into our office to create their estate plan, such as through wills, trusts or other legal instruments, we typically ask them to bring a list of all their assets. We do this for a number of reasons as we need to know if your estate is taxable, whether you have a large or small estate that will provide for long-term care and other contingencies as necessary, and we need to know the types of assets you own. All of these may drastically affect our approach to planning to meet your desires and how we implement your plan.
To help tailor an effective estate plan for your specific situation, consider the following general rules regarding distribution of your assets:
- Assets in your own, individual name are distributed according to your last will and testament. These could, potentially, include land, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, etc. Without proper planning these assets are distributed through the probate process after your death.
- Assets that are jointly held are generally distributed to the survivor/co-owner. Examples of these include land and a residence owned jointly by a husband and wife. Upon your death, ownership simply transfers to the survivor and are not subject to the probate process.
- Assets with beneficiary designations, such as life insurance policies, IRAs, 401Ks and annuities are distributed to the named beneficiary, regardless of the will's contents.
- Assets that are in your trust remain in or are distributed according to the trust, outside of the probate process.
With these four rules, you will note that your last will and testament may actually cover few of your assets. It is very common for people to include joint owners on land, bank accounts, etc., and have few assets in their own, individual name. This process, while it limits those assets that may be subject to the probate process, does carry some risk/reward implications which should be carefully reviewed with an attorney.
In conclusion, please make sure that you know how all of your assets are titled and how they would likely be distributed upon your death and not just the assets that are subject to your last will and testament. This can be a complicated subject and we are more than happy to sit down, review your assets and make sure your wishes are followed.