Articles Posted in Probate

Going into a legal consultation regarding your probate affairs, you may have questions about what might happen during the meeting. On today’s blog, we expand on our YouTube series that discusses some of the ins and outs of probate by covering what you can expect during a probate consultation with an attorney from McCulloch & Miller.

Central Issues

There are a few central concerns that your probate attorney will want to address to make sure that the two of you are on the same wavelength. First and foremost, your attorney will want to know if there is a will or other estate planning document in play. If you are beginning the probate process for a loved one, the path you take will look completely different if there is a will or if there is no will. Even if there is a will, the attorney will want to have a look – it’s possible, for example, that the will might be invalid or that there might be inconsistencies that the attorney wants to raise on the front end of the proceedings.

In our blog posts in the past, we have reviewed the process of creating, probating, and enforcing a will. In many cases, this process is straightforward, but there are times when complicated factors sneak in. For example: what happens if a person dies with two wills? Which will serve as the controlling document? And how do you navigate this issue if you are going through the probate process?

Who Decides Which Will is the Valid Will?

In short, the probate judge is the person who will determine which will is valid when a decedent leaves behind more than one will. Sometimes, the most important factor in the judge’s decision will be the timing of the will – that is, the will that was created most recently will be the controlling will.

It is safe to say that no one looks forward to navigating the probate process – it can be daunting for those that have lost loved ones and are just trying to get the decedent’s affairs in order. At McCulloch & Miller, part of our goal is to demystify the probate process for clients and potential clients, to help them feel like they have a better grip on what might happen through their interactions with the courts. Today, we cover which assets must go through the probate process, as well as which assets typically are exempt.

Probate Assets

Any real property typically goes through probate in Texas – this, notably, is a broad category of assets that includes real estate, money in non-exempt bank accounts, pieces of land, vehicles, and other important objects or possessions. The probate court’s job is to interpret the decedent’s estate planning documents and determine how these assets should be divided up. In the absence of a will, the court will divide the assets up according to intestate laws in Texas, which tell the court the specific family members that are entitled to receive the decedent’s property.

In an ideal world, probate would go smoothly in every case, and a decedent’s loved ones would always be confident that their inheritance is being handled professionally and well. In reality, however, there can be problems that come up during probate. One such problem, which is rare but severe when it does happen, is when an executor fails to initiate the probate process. On today’s blog, we cover some of the implications of this failure, as well as a few options available to those who have found themselves in this unfortunate situation.

One of the first (and perhaps most obvious) issues that arises from an executor failing to start probate is that the decedent’s assets do not transfer to his or her heirs. Through probate, a court decides that an individual’s will is valid, and the court authorizes the distribution of the decedent’s assets to his or her beneficiaries. Without this process, the assets get stuck, and the heirs are unable to receive their share of the estate.

Similarly, debts fail to get resolved if an executor does not start probate. This means that debtors can still pursue the decedent’s money and property, even going so far as to sue those with access to the decedent’s assets. A decedent’s estate will also continue to be responsible for recurring payments, such as property taxes, if probate has not begun. These costs can add up over time, taking away from the inheritance that beneficiaries will eventually receive once probate does get underway.

At McCulloch & Miller, we understand the dilemma – paying for an attorney can be difficult, but you also don’t want to go through legal battles alone. During the probate process, it can be especially frustrating to navigate all of the procedural hurdles without an attorney. But is an attorney required? Today, we talk about whether attorneys are necessary in Texas probate proceedings.

The short answer to this question is that probate sometimes requires an attorney in Texas. Specifically, most probate courts in Texas do require that an estate’s executor hire a lawyer. The executor is responsible for looking out for not only his or her own interest, but the interests of the estate’s beneficiaries as well. Because of this dual role, most courts stipulate that the executors must retain an attorney during the probate process.

The most common situation in which an attorney is not needed for probate is when the decedent’s will is probated as a muniment of title. We have discussed muniments of title previously on our blog, but for a short overview, muniment of title is essentially a shortened probate process that is available when the estate has (1) no unsecured debts and (2) only real property and cash accounts. If the estate qualifies for muniment of title, the executor can move forward without hiring a lawyer at all.

Clients sometimes ask us about how they can go about selling property during probate proceedings – is it even possible? What does it entail? In short, the answer is yes: you can sell property during probate. As always, however, the long answer is a bit more complicated, as it involves several important steps that are not to be missed.

If a piece of property is tied up in probate, and the descendent had a valid will, there will be an executor of the estate that would be responsible for selling the house. This executor must first get the consent of all of the will’s beneficiaries – without this consent, he or she cannot move forward with the sale.

Once the house is for sale, the executor, real estate agent, or any other interested party must keep in mind several important requirements:

  • The executor must a) file notice of the sale with the court and b) mail the notice to all heirs under the will.
  • The home cannot sell for less than 90% of the home’s appraised value. This, of course, means that the home will need to be appraised prior to the sale.
  • The buyer is required to put down a deposit of at least 10% if his or her offer is accepted.
  • The executor must provide at least 15 days for anyone (heirs, claimants, etc.) to challenge the sale.

If the sale does not abide by the terms above, the probate court can decide that the sale is invalid. If it does meet the requirements, the court will likely approve the sale through a hearing, which takes place approximately a month after the sale.

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When undergoing the probate process, there can be unexpected procedural requirements, hurdles, and costs that you incur. When planning for probate, it is important to note that the cost of probating a will depends greatly on the size and complexity of the estate. For a multimillion-dollar estate, for example, the cost of probate will be much higher than for an estate work a few thousand dollars. Either way, though, it is important to financially plan for the possible burden that Texas’s probate system can take on you and your family.

Which Parts of Probate Cost Money?

To start, the probate court charges individuals to file papers, process the case, and keep records of everything that is happening. These costs will depend on how many filings you submit, but they can be anywhere from $500 to $5,000. One way to make sure these costs are kept at a minimum is ensuring that when you file something, it has all of the correct information the first time, so that you only have to file once.

It also typically costs money to retain an executor of the estate. An executor’s fees are typically a percentage of the estate – for example, they might be 1-5% of the total value of the estate going through probate. These costs depend on the individual executor, as others charge an hourly rate instead of an overall percentage.

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At times, navigating probate is a relatively straightforward process. Other times, though, the process can be messy – especially when it is unclear who an individual’s heirs are and who should receive the individual’s property. In today’s blog post, we discuss one way to navigate this issue – namely, by filing an application to determine heirship.

Importantly, an application to determine heirship always involves the probate court, and it always involves a hearing before the court. The purpose of the hearing is to determine who, exactly, should receive a decedent’s property. The hearing can take place either when a decedent’s estate has not been administered (as long as there is some property in Texas) or when property in Texas was left out of a decedent’s will.

What Happens During the Hearing?

When this kind of hearing takes place, the court begins by figuring out if the property at issue is separate property, meaning the decedent was the sole owner, or community property, meaning there were others involved. Once it has made this determination, the court looks at the Texas Estates Code to determine who should inherit the property.

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Passing real estate to beneficiaries can be more complicated than you might think. If you own property, there are several steps you must take in order to ensure your property passes down to your chosen beneficiaries. In general, real estate will go through the probate process, but there are a couple of ways to avoid probate if you are looking into transferring real estate as a part of your personal estate plan.

Option One: Transfer on Death Deeds

The first option for those who wish to avoid probate when transferring real estate is called the transfer on death deed. This deed allows a property owner to transfer his or her interest immediately upon death to whoever he or she names in the deed. The deed has to meet certain procedural requirements, like being in writing and being signed in the presence of a notary. Without these requirements met, the court might end up having the property pass through probate despite the property owner’s earnest attempt at avoiding it.

Option Two: Life Estate Deed

A life estate deed looks slightly different than a transfer on death deed. It gives legal title to the chosen beneficiary during the property owner’s lifetime. While the legal title no longer belongs to the original owner under this kind of deed, the owner does maintain the right to live on the property during his or her lifetime. This option can be a nice middle ground for estate planners, in that it makes the inheriting process easier for beneficiaries while still allowing them the benefit of residing on the land during their lifetime.

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There is so much about probating a will that can be difficult to figure out, and without the right information at your fingertips, it can be easy to let parts of the process fall through the cracks. If you have a loved one that has recently passed and you need to make sure his or her will goes through probate, you want to make sure you leave no stone uncovered. By working diligently, you can finish up probate as efficiently and thoroughly as possible, enabling yourself to move forward with your life after the process is complete.

How Do I Begin Probating a Will?

If your loved one has passed, and that person did leave a will, the first thing you will have to do is file an application for probate with the court. Importantly, there are different probate courts in Texas, and you will want to make sure you file the application with the court in your area (i.e., your jurisdiction). As a general rule, loved ones have four years from a decedent’s death to file an application for probate.

What Will the Probate Court Require Before Approving a Will?

The probate court will first require you to wait for a period of time so that it can provide notice to anyone who might think he or she has a right to the decedent’s assets. After this period of time (typically two weeks), the court will hold a hearing. At this hearing, the judge will decide whether the decedent’s will is valid.

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