Generally speaking, probate assets consist of a decedent’s property at the time of death. This includes anything of value that does not transfer automatically. The greater the probate assets, the longer and more expensive the probate proceedings become. In Washington DC Probate should be avoided to the extent reasonably possible.
General rules for avoiding probate in Washington D.C.
- Put marital assets in the names of both spouses,
- Make sure any beneficiary designations retirement accounts or insurance policies are current,
- Have a properly drafted trust especially if widowed or single,
- Place significant assets in trust, and
- Make sure to amend testamentary and trust documents so they operate in tandem and reflect all significant changes.
Because probate court proceedings to transfer decedents’ assets to heirs can be so long, costly, and burdensome, the District of Columbia (D.C.) Government has established specific methods for avoiding probate in Washington D.C.:
- Living Trusts. In D.C., living trusts avoid probate for real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, virtually any asset. A trust document similar to a will names the asset owner as the trustee and someone to administer an owner’s assets as successor trustee after the owner’s death. Control of the asset is dictated under the terms of the trust. At the owner’s death, the successor trustee can transfer the asset to a beneficiary without probate court proceedings.
- Joint Ownership. If the ownership includes the “right of survivorship,” when an owner dies the property transfers automatically to the surviving owner(s). No probate is necessary to transfer ownership.
In D.C., these forms of joint ownership are available:
- Joint Tenancy. When an owner dies, property in joint tenancy passes to the surviving owner(s) automatically. No probate is necessary. In D.C., each joint tenant must own an equal share.
- Tenancy by the Entirety. This form of joint ownership is like joint tenancy but for married couples.
Bank Accounts with Balances Payable on Death
- Bank accounts can designate beneficiaries to whom balances are payable when account holders die. Beneficiaries can make their claims to banks directly without probate court proceedings.
- Securities Registered for Transfer on Death allows owners to register stocks and bonds as transferable on death. Brokerage accounts so registered pass automatically to beneficiaries, who bypass probate and deal with brokers directly.
Real Estate Deeds Transferable on Death
Owners of D.C. real estate can record deeds to transfer their property when they die. Then their beneficiaries can claim the properties so deeded. In the meantime, the owners retain all rights and can revoke such deeds or sell their properties at any time.
Professional Estate Planning Services
Avoiding probate in Washington D.C. and protecting and distributing assets according to decedents’ designs and intents are important financial issues for everyone. Estate planning defines with certainty the decedents’ wishes to be executed. Many devices are available in estate planning processes, but not all may be right for everyone, so it is important to seek professional advice and assistance to develop the best plan.