Probate vs. Non-Probate Property: Which Property Can Pass Outside of Probate?

Probate is the legal process where a court proves, or validates, the decedent’s will; appoints his or her personal representative; and often oversees the collection, distribution, or sale of the decedent’s property. The probate property, that is. Thus, it is important for the practitioner to know the difference between probate and non-probate property. The easy, but unsatisfactory answer is that probate property is anything other than non-probate property. So what is non-probate property; that is, what property passes at death without a permission slip from the court?

Here’s another easy, but more instructive answer: non-probate property is property that does not pass under the decedent’s will.  As the list below illustrates, that could include a lot of property:

Non-Probate Property

Property that passes by beneficiary designation, which generally includes:

  • Life insurance policies (but see below),
  • Annuities,
  • Individual retirement accounts or IRAs,
  • Roth IRAs,
  • Employee Stock Ownership Plans or ESOPs,
  • Pension Plans, including
  • Defined Benefit Plans,
  • Money Purchase Plans,
  • 401(k) Plans,
  • 403(b) Plans,
  • Simple IRA Plans (Savings Incentive Match Plans for Employees),
  • SEP Plans (Simplified Employee Pension),
  • SARSEP Plans (Salary Reduction Simplified Employee Pension),
  • Payroll Deduction IRAs,
  • Profit Sharing Plans,
  • Governmental Plans under 401(a),
  • 457 Plans,
  • 409A Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plans,
  • Payable-on-Death or POD Accounts,
  • Transfer-on-Death of TOD Accounts, including investment accounts,
  • Property that passes by deed, which includes:
  • Real estate owned in 1. joint tenancy with rights to survivorship (JTWS), 2. life estate where property passes to another upon death of life tenant, and 3. any property the decedent held in a life estate,
  • Property that passes by account designation, which includes: 1. Bank accounts owned jointly, and 2. brokerage accounts owned jointly,
  • Vehicles owned jointly,
  • Safety deposit boxes,
  • Other property that falls within the definition of a “non-probate transfer,” including ; 1. Insurance policies, contracts of employment, bonds, mortgages, promissory notes, deposit agreements, pension plans, trust agreements, conveyances, or virtually any other written instrument effective as a contract, gift, conveyance, or trust.
  • Property owned by a trustee of a trust. (Of course, if the decedent is the settlor of a trust, that trust will be subject to an administration somewhat similar to the administration that takes place in probate, but away from the prying eyes of both a judge and the public.)

Non-probate property bypasses Go, bypasses the court, and goes directly to the beneficiary, the joint account holder, the joint owner. Often the movement of the property from the decedent owner to the surviving owner is virtually seamless—well, painless anyway: beneficiaries file a death claim with the insurance company, attach a death certificate, and voila! the death proceeds appear. But often the movement requires a trip to the DMV. Even that need not be a chore. If the word “or” separated the two names on the title, the survivor doesn’t have to do anything; however, if he or she wishes to remove the decedent’s name off the title, then mailing or hand-delivering a “Vehicle Application for Title” to the DMV along with a check to cover the cost of removing the name, will do the job. If the word “and” separates the name, the survivor will also need to provide a death certificate.

Likewise, the surviving owner(s) of real property owned in a JTWS must take a few steps to terminate the decedent’s interest in the property under most states’ probate code, including filing an affidavit substantially similar to the statutory form in the county where the property is located and attaching a copy of the death certificate. (By the way, if the decedent owned real estate as a trustee of a trust, the successor trustee should file a similar affidavit along with a death certificate, indicating that the successor trustee has assumed the position of the deceased trustee with regard to the property.)

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: non-probate property will pass to the intended beneficiary, account holder, surviving owner notwithstanding what the decedent said in his or her will. In other words, the beneficiary designation, the deed, the POD/TOD, etc. controls the disposition of non-probate property, not the will.

Probate Property

If non-probate property includes everything on the list above, probate property includes everything else, including the following:

  • Life insurance/annuities payable to the insured’s estate,
  • Personal property—art, furniture, antiques, and the like—not jointly owned,
  • Real estate the decedent owns either as an individual or as a tenant in common,
  • Accounts owned individually by the decedent, including
    • Bank accounts,
    • Brokerage accounts,
    • Etc.
  • Any other property the decedent owned individually at death.

And if it’s probate property, the court will have some say about who gets what, governed by the decedent’s will of course.

The Attorney’s Job

The probate attorney’s or personal representative’s or PR’s job is to separate the non-probate wheat from the probate chaff. To do that, the attorney or PR should consult the relevant documents. That requires gathering account statements, life insurance policies, retirement plan beneficiary designations, titles, deeds, and the like to determine how the property is owned and who the beneficiaries are in the relevant cases. That may turn out to be more difficult than it seems, largely because you can’t be sure the decedent’s heirs know fact from fiction. Thus, don’t rely on the life insurance policy in the decedent’s file drawer to tell you who or what is the beneficiary. Ask the life insurance agent or call the company to get a copy of the most recent beneficiary designation. Call the title company to pull the most recent vesting deed. (You might even go further, some attorneys argue that there’s no need to record a deed to a revocable trust; thus, the most recent recorded vesting deed may not be the most recent deed.) In other words, check primary sources.

Seminar this Wednesday: Estate Planning for Blended Families

I’ll be presenting a seminar at the Orem Public Library on Estate Planning for Blended Families.
When                 Wed, April 5, 7pm – 8pm
Where                Orem Public Library, Media Auditorium (map)
Description       Couples with blended families face special challenges when it comes to making sure that stocks, bonds, real estate, and other property and family heirlooms go to the right persons at the right time when a spouse dies. This seminar will address such issues and discuss ways to solve them, using wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents.
Hope to see you there.

Estate Planning Seminar at Orem Public Library

I’m presenting a seminar at the public library in Orem, Utah tomorrow, Wednesday, March 1st at 7 PM. The topic will be “Wills, Trusts, and Other Documents Necessary to a Good Estate Plan.” I’d love to see you there.

Unfortunately, I just learned that the library’s calendar was hacked yesterday, so you’ll have to trust me on this one.

Estate Planning Seminar at Pleasant Grove Library

I’ll be presenting a seminar on DIY — Do It Yourself — Estate Planning at the Pleasant Grove Library on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 at 7 PM. Come an enjoy the discussion. The address is 30 E Center St, Pleasant Grove.

If you have a question about wills, trusts, and other aspects of estate planning, maybe I can answer it.

Quote for the Day

“While many people have an inherent aversion to talking about both death and taxes, leaving a positive legacy is something we all care about. Unfortunately, numerous studies show that over 50% of Americans have no estate plan, no will and no medical directives. Why do so many people fail to properly plan for what happens at the end of their life? Simon & Garfunkel may have gotten to the heart of things in one of their songs: So I’ll continue to continue to pretend / My life will never end….

“The tragedy of failing to properly plan is not visited upon the dead. It is the living that suffer its unexpected and unforgiving consequences. By failing to properly plan, many of us are creating problems for our loved ones that do not exist. Estate planning sounds as if it is for the über-wealthy when in fact it applies to everyone. Below are some of the areas that need to be addressed as a part of the estate planning process.”

John J. Scroggin, AEP, J.D., LL.M., Wall Street Journal

Some Things I Learned Answering Questions on a Forum for Asking Legal Questions

Yikes_2016-03-07_0843So I sometimes forget that everybody’s smart, just on different subjects. For example, I don’t know much about physics. My teachers tried, but my head could only hold so much gravity and speed of light and such. Well, today I was online in an online forum where non-lawyers posed legal questions to attorneys. These were real life people experiencing real life problems that involved the law in some way or the other.

Now let me be crystal clear: I don’t think these people are dumb. To repeat: we are all “smart,” just on different things. I happen to know a lot about the law, but boy am I at a loss about some other subjects (heck, even about some legal subjects). With that, here are a few things I learned while answering questions:

  1. Many, if not most people, don’t realize that estate taxes are no longer a concern for most of us. Did you know that you and your spouse must be worth almost $11 million before the tax man comes knocking? Yes, you may need to do some planning to make sure you take full advantage of that $11 million threshold, but still.
  2. Many people don’t realize that the First Amendment doesn’t protect them from employers, friends, parents, and the like from infringing on their free speech rights. No, the First Amendment protects us from the government infringing on our rights. And even then the right is not absolute.
  3. More than a few people confuse a living will with a plain old will, also known as a last will and testament. A living will is a document that tells your family and doctor whether you want life support and such should you become incapacity and unable to speak for yourself. A will or last will and testament is what you use to appoint guardians for your children and to give your property away when you die. You can read more here.
  4. A lot of people–especially people down on their luck financially–aren’t aware of the legal resources available to them that are free or at a reduced cost, nor are they aware of the state agencies that might be of help to them–child protective or family services, for example. For the record, in Wyoming you can go to the Wyoming State Bar to find free or reduced-rate legal services. In Utah, you should go here.  In Wyoming, you can find child and family services here.  In Utah, you’ll find them here.
  5. Finally, too many people are way too quick to pull the trigger; that is, they get angry and immediately shout “Medic!!!” I mean, “Lawyer!!!” To those I say, try to work out your problems by yourself and amicably first, especially if it’s family, then resort to the law. But the corollary to that is, if the proper response is legal, then hire an attorney. Trust me on that one.

Now where do I go to find out how fast the speed of light was back in the days of horse and buggy?

Estate Planning: Are You Prepared for Incapacity?

Not too long ago, estate planning was all about the estate tax tail wagging a sometimes reluctant dog. That was unfortunate for a number of reasons, among them, the focus on estate taxes caused planners to look beyond all those who had no estate tax problem. Likewise, those without that estate tax problem walked around unaware that they probably should do some planning nonetheless.DSC02461

Did I just describe you? If so, maybe it’s time think again about the need to do some estate planning.

Though avoiding estate taxes still motivates some (very well off) people to plan, the driving force behind estate planning these days for most people is one or more of the following. The desire to

  • Maintain control of their property while they’re alive and well;
  • Provide for themselves and their loved ones if they become disabled or incapacitated;
  • Give what they have
    • To whom they want,
    • The way they want,
    • When they want, and
  • Minimize the impact of professional fees, court costs, and taxes–typically income taxes first, then estate.

That second item, the one about providing for your family if you’re disabled or otherwise  incapacitated, is a big one. Did you know that a 20 year old has a 1 in 4 chance of becoming disabled before they retire? It gets worse with age. According to a 2005 AARP study,

The lifetime probability facing a 65 year old of developing a disability in at least two primary activities of daily living for at least three months or becoming cognitively impaired is 44 percent for males turning age 65 and 72 percent for females. Therefore, women face a 64 percent higher risk than do men.

A well-drafted estate plan will address those probabilities and ensure that you and your loved ones are better able to deal with a disability or mental incapacity should it happen. That plan will include

  1. The designation of a trustee and/or agent to manage your property while you’re unable;
  2. A living will, so your doctor and loved ones will know what you want done when you’re unable to communicate; and
  3. A health care power of attorney, so your health care agent can do what you would do in the same circumstances–if you were able.

Those last two items collectively are known in Utah and Wyoming as an advance health care directive by the way. Do you have one in place? Do you have a trustee or agent to manage your property in case you no longer can? Then maybe it’s time to do some estate planning.



DocuBank: Estate Planning and Health Care Documents at Your Fingertips

I recently became affiliated with DocuBank, a firm that allows my clients and me to store my and my clients to safely and securely store our estate planning documents, including our living wills, health care directives, and HIPAA authorizations. In turn, your and my doctor or the hospital in whose beds we might by lying in can access those records and, we hope, follow our wishes outlined in the relevant documents.

To help make this happen–and fast–DocuBank also provides you and me wallet-sized cards with a summary of our information and phone numbers and the like. It’s pretty nifty. Price well. And, something you should consider using to store your important documents.

Powers of Attorney, Living Wills, and Such: The Problem of Staleness

Remember when you were in your teens and still driving your parents’s cars? Every Friday night, it was the same routine, “Dad, Mom, can I use the car tonight?” And either the keys would come flying your way–or they wouldn’t. But when they did, you were off in a flash and out for the night.

IMG_2773Did you ever try to take advantage of that permission slip a day or two later? You know, as in, “Well, they gave me permission on Friday, it must be okay today”? I’ll bet you tried something like that at least once. I know I did. What was the result?

For me, it was a lecture and, if I recall correctly, my car privileges were revoked or some such. Why? The conditions that prevailed when my parents gave me the keys on Friday no longer existed on Tuesday. Now, Mom needed one car to go to a church function. Dad needed the other car to do business 20 miles away. In other words, my permission slip had grown stale.

Ever eaten stale food? Last night I cooked some boxed scalloped potatoes that were way past their “best-used-by date,” as in five years past. I can still taste the taste of stale in my mouth. Yuck.

Staleness can be a problem with powers of attorney, living wills, and the like as well. According to Jeremiah Barlow, an attorney with, many financial institutions and hospitals won’t accept a power attorney, living will, and other such document if they’re more than two or three years old because, well, conditions may have changed. The principal–the person granting the power to the agent–may no longer have the need for an agent–the person granted the power–to do things for him. Or he may want someone else to do it.

Or, as the financial institution or hospital may be thinking, maybe the power of attorney or living will has been revoked or changed by the principal.

And so, it’s good practice to update–literally–any of those documents you may have signed years ago. Make them fresh again, so your bank or hospital will accept them. Update them, so they work when they’re supposed to.


Directing Your Health Care with an Advance Health Care Directive–with the Stress on the Word Advance

I have an 87 year old client who was born, raised, and has lived in Wyoming her entire life–that is, except for the five or six winter months she has spent in southern Utah each of the last few years. She’s at that age when her health and her health care are becoming an ever more important concern to her. One of those concerns, of course, is what to do should she become sick and unable to express her wishes about end-of-life decisions. What can she do to make those decisions now and insure that her wishes are carried out by her loved ones and doctors?

The Tools. The answer–in Wyoming, Utah, and most other states–is the Advance Health Care Directive, a document or documents in which an individual does one or both of the following: 1. Appoint and give authority to a health care agent (a son or daughter, for example) and 2. Give instructions about those difficult end-of-life decisions (whether to have a feeding tube, for instance).

As in most areas of medicine and the law, the terminology or jargon people use to describe these documents can be confusing–it certainly confused me when I first began studying the subject. But it the end, it’s all rather simple. The first document, the one appointing a health care agent, is no more than a very specific power of attorney or POA. If it’s your POA, then you are the principal and the appointed person is your health care agent. Essentially, you empower your agent to act as you would act if you were still able, to stand in your shoes in other words.bp-cuff

The second document, the one with all the instructions, is the so-called living will. Generally, the living will tends to be more specific than a health care power of attorney. Don’t want feeding tubes, CPR, artificial ventilation, that sort of thing? You say so in a living will. That’s not to say, you can’t be that specific in a health care power of attorney. But think of it this way: with a health care agent, you are giving authority to act in your place to someone you know and who knows you–probably very well. That person may not need very specific instructions because of that knowledge. A living will, however, tends to be directed more generally at not only your family and friends, but also at doctors, nurses, and others who may not know you so well. With people like that, you want to be very specific.

Both Wyoming and Utah have fill-in-the-blank forms for both documents. They’re free and generally in the same booklet or file. Hospitals located in each state often have their own versions. Here’s one from Wyoming Medical Center, a hospital based in Casper. Utah-based Intermountain Health Care provides similar forms. As both hospital-provided forms stress, you don’t have to both appoint an agent and give directions. In fact, at the beginning of both forms, you’ll find a section where you can say that you DO NOT want to choose an agent for your health care.

For what it’s worth, in many, if not most, cases, both documents should be used, the living will/instructions document backing up the health care power of appointment. In that case, the living will is essentially saying, “and to make myself perfectly clear: I have discussed these matters with my health care agent, and what we discussed is reflected in my living will. That said, if there’s any chance that a provision in my living will contradicts any authority I granted my agent in my power of attorney, the document with the more expansive powers governs.”

Do You Need a Lawyer to Fill Out the Forms? No. The forms I’ve linked to above meet the requirements of state law. So long as you fill them out correctly, sign, and have them properly witnessed, they are better than nothing–much better.

But the question isn’t do you need a lawyer? The question is should you consult an attorney about a health care directive? I think the answer is yes. For one, a good advisor can help you carefully consider the many issues that come into play in choosing a health care agent. Good attorneys are trained to think dispassionately and out of the box. Not everyone is suited to make end-of-life decisions, for example. A good advisor will help you choose someone who is. Likewise, deciding in advance whether you want a feeding tube or CPR are hard choices. A good advisor who has been down that road before with other clients, will be a good guide for you.

Beyond that, health care directives are just one part–an important part–of a more comprehensive estate plan. As I make clear on this website’s home page, virtually everybody needs an estate plan. Read that page again and see if you agree. If you see yourself on the list for “Do I need estate planning?” then we should talk–about that plan–and an advance health care directive.

But back to my 87 year old client. Remember, she now spends significant time in both Wyoming and Utah and has doctors in Montana. In our planning together, one of her concerns is that her wishes for end-of-life health care be carried out whether she is in Wyoming enjoying the great summers, in southern Utah soaking in the warm winter sun, or shopping in Billings, Montana. Though the laws governing advance health care directives are quite similar in all three states, there are some important differences, differences that could call into question a Utah directive in Wyoming or Montana and vice versa, at least in the eyes of an overly careful hospital administrator.

That said, all three states have provisions in their laws that either grant reciprocity to health care directives from other states or seem to. Utah law states that a health care provider or facility,

may, in good faith, rely on any health care directive, power of attorney, or similar instrument (a) executed in another state . . . (Utah Code §75-2a-121.  Reciprocity — Application of former provisions of law).

Montana law is equally explicit:

 A declaration executed in a manner substantially similar to 50-9-103 in another state and in compliance with the law of that state is effective for purposes of this chapter (Montana Code §50-9-111. Recognition of declarations executed in other states).

Wyoming law is not so clear. In fact, an attorney I spoke with at one of Wyoming’s largest hospitals suggested it may take two sections of the Wyoming Code to do what Montana and Utah did in one, and even then things remain a little murky. In fairness, the attorney also told me that particular hospital honored directives from other states as did the other Wyoming hospitals the attorney was aware of.

Here is the relevant wording of the two sections of the Wyoming Code I just referred to. You be the judge:

§35-22-408.  Obligations of health care provider. . . . a health care provider or institution providing care to a patient shall:
     (i) Comply with an individual instruction of the patient and with a reasonable interpretation of that instruction made by a person then authorized to make health care decisions for the patient . . .


§35-22-416.  Uniformity of application and construction. This act shall be applied and construed to effectuate its general purpose to make uniform the law with respect to the subject matter of this act among states enacting it.

Like I said, it appears that all three states recognize directives from other states. Nevertheless, when my client and I are finished, she will have an advance health care directive–both the POA and the Living Will–that complies with the provisions of the law governing such directives and powers of attorney in all three states.

Updated to include the relevant statutes from Utah, Wyoming, and Montana and to discuss reciprocity in more detail.


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