When a loved one passes away in an accident or because of a serious medical condition or natural causes, it can be extremely difficult for the family and friends left behind. On top of the loss, certain family members often have to decide what must be done to transfer or inherit the decedent’s property after the funeral and burial arrangements are complete. The “decedent” is the man or woman who died and the “estate” is all of the assets and property they owned at the time of their death.
If someone dies with an estate (not all people leave behind an estate, some only leave behind debt), their closest relatives will normally need to take the matter up in probate court – a very complicated process. In some cases, however, a decedent’s family may be able to transfer their loved one’s property without going to court; this depends on how the decedent arranged their assets prior to their death.
Ways an Estate Can Be Transferred Upon Death
While passing assets through a will are one way to transfer an estate, it’s certainly not the only way. An estate can pass through a will, through a trust, and through beneficiary designations. Not all ways involve having to go through probate court, which is a good thing.
Some common ways to transfer an estate outside of probate:
- Retirement plans, insurance policies, and bank accounts pass outside of probate because they use beneficiary designations.
- When a house is owned by two or more people as joint tenants and one of the owners dies, the other owners have what is called “right of survivorship” and they inherit the entire property.
- If real estate has a transfer-on-death deed or beneficiary deed, it passes without going to court.
- The property that is placed in a living trust is transferred without going to court.
Probate is the process of validating a will, naming an executor or personal representative, determining who the heirs or beneficiaries are, paying off all debts of the estate, and distributing what’s left of the estate to the beneficiaries or heirs.
In California, it’s common for probate to take 9 to 18 months, but sometimes it can take even longer, especially if real estate has to be sold before the case can conclude. Because probate takes so long, people often want to arrange it so some, if not many of their assets pass outside of probate. This way their beneficiaries can receive their inheritances much sooner.