A thorough understanding of how probate works in North Carolina can make estate planning much more manageable. Avoiding probate can help you pass your assets on to your beneficiaries while saving time and money. It’s important to break down the complexity of the probate process so that you can understand how to avoid it with your own estate planning process. Each state has its own unique challenges when making your estate plan. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know to avoid probate in North Carolina. A financial advisor can also help you create an estate plan for your specific needs.
Understanding the Probate Process in North Carolina
Probate is a judicial process initiated upon a person’s death, where their estate — encompassing all assets, debts and liabilities — is managed and distributed. While the basic procedure is similar across all states, there are subtle differences, which may significantly impact the process length and cost. In North Carolina, for instance, the probate process can be lengthy and becomes public, meaning the deceased individual’s financial dealings become a matter of public record.
This process is triggered when the estate’s executor, typically named in the deceased’s will, files a petition with the Clerk of Superior Court. Once the executor’s petition is approved, they’re required to notify all creditors, settle debts and distribute the remaining belongings to beneficiaries as specified in the will. This lengthy activity may take anywhere from six months to more than a year, with complex estates taking even longer.
Reasons to Avoid Probate
Here are six common reasons why individuals might choose to avoid probate:
- Costs and expenses: Probate proceedings can incur significant fees, including court costs, attorney fees and executor fees. These can reduce the estate’s assets before distribution to beneficiaries.
- Time-consuming process: Probate can be a lengthy process, often taking several months or even years to complete, delaying the distribution of assets to heirs or beneficiaries.
- Loss of privacy: Probate is a public process, meaning the details of the estate, its assets and distributions become a matter of public record. This can potentially compromise the privacy of the deceased person and their beneficiaries.
- Potential for disputes and challenges: Probate proceedings may lead to family conflicts or disputes among heirs or beneficiaries, resulting in litigation that can further delay the distribution of assets and increase costs.
- Limited control over distribution: The probate court oversees the distribution of assets according to state laws or the deceased person’s will, potentially resulting in distributions that differ from the deceased’s intentions or the desires of the beneficiaries.
- Assets subject to claims and creditors: During probate, creditors have the opportunity to make claims against the estate, potentially reducing the value of assets available for distribution to beneficiaries.
Strategies to Bypass Probate in North Carolina
There are various ways to evade probate in North Carolina, each bearing its own benefits and considerations. The right option will depend on the asset you’re protecting as well as what your unique situation looks like. Here are some of the most popular ways to avoid probate in North Carolina:
- Naming beneficiaries to all accounts: Accounts such as life insurance policies, retirement accounts and payable-on-death bank accounts will allow you to name a beneficiary that can take over the account, or the assets, upon your death. This can prevent the need for those assets to go through a probate process.
- Joint ownership: Another strategic approach to bypass probate involves joint ownership, primarily through joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety. However, it’s important to seek professional legal advice to optimize the benefits and account for the potential downsides of joint ownership and to make sure you’ve executed this correctly.
- Creating a living trust: Setting up a living trust is a more sophisticated but effective strategy to circumvent probate. It would be prudent here to seek a financial advisor’s advice to establish a solid living trust.
Other Estate Planning Considerations in North Carolina
Comprehensive estate planning extends well beyond probate, including various other legal documents and declarations. Among these are durable power of attorney, health care power of attorney and living wills, each allowing you to nominate someone to manage your finances or medical decisions if you become incapacitated. These are important things to consider as part of your overall estate plan.
Additionally, you need to think through potential estate planning tax considerations. The last thing you want is to cause your beneficiaries to have to pay a lot of unnecessary taxes when they inherit your assets. Plus, if you own a business, there are numerous other things to consider from succession planning to ownership transfer. Consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney in North Carolina is advisable to ensure that your plan aligns with state laws and addresses your specific needs and circumstances.
Understanding and planning for the probate process is a critical aspect of estate planning in North Carolina. Naming beneficiaries, joint ownership and creating a living trust can help bypass probate, among other estate planning strategies, to thereby preserve the value of your estate and ensure a smooth transition for your loved ones.
Tips for Estate Planning
- A financial advisor can help you think through all of your estate planning needs and make sure your assets are protected. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- As a starting point, consider using this estate planning checklist so you can make sure your planning gets off on the right foot.
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/fizkes, ©iStock.com/DjelicS, ©iStock.com/ProfessionalStudioImages