Who inherits when you die?
Most married people own their home, their bank account or their investments jointly as a couple. The most common designation on an investment account is “joint tenants with right of survivorship” (abbreviated as JT/WROS). What this means is that each has full power over the account. Either can deposit, withdraw or make changes in the account. And when one of them dies, the other automatically becomes the full owner of the account.
There are some accounts that cannot be owned as a couple. An example is an IRA, or a retirement account like a 401k. When the owner of this kind of accounts dies, the assets go to the persons named as “beneficiaries.” Therefore it’s important to review beneficiary designations on retirement accounts when life changes take place like death or divorce.
But what about accounts that are in the name of just one person without a named beneficiary? This is very often the case of people who were never married, are divorced, or widowed. Under those circumstances, when the owner dies the assets in these accounts are distributed under the terms of a will. This requires a process known as “probate.”
Probate is the legal process whereby a will is “proved” in a court and accepted as a valid public document that is the true last testament of the deceased.
There are two ways of avoiding probate. The first is place your assets in a trust and designate who will receive the assets on death. This requires an estate planning attorney.
The second way is to add a Transfer on Death (TOD) designation to the account. A TOD designation names the person (or people) who will inherit the account. Since the assets go to the named beneficiaries directly, probate is not required. The other advantage is that it does not require a lawyer so there is no cost.
Review your investment accounts, your IRA and retirement accounts and your estate planning documents on a regular basis. It can prevent a lot of problems later.