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What is probate, and what does probate cost?

Here’s what you need to know about the costs of probate — and how to avoid them

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Probate court can take up time and money — but with the right documents in place, it’s possible to avoid probate completely. For eligible Haven Term policyholders, one option is no-cost estate planning services from Trust & Will, through our Haven Life Plus bonus rider.

We asked Patrick Hicks, head of legal at Trust & Will, to help explain how to minimize or eliminate the costs of probate.

“Trust & Will can help by providing access to the creation of a trust which, when executed properly, can help your estate avoid probate,” Hicks told us. “If you do have to go through probate, Trust & Will can assist you with the process with a variety of service options from do-it-yourself tool-assisted probate, to dedicated concierge step-by-step support, to a full licensed attorney doing the whole process for you.”

Eligible Haven Term policyholders can create one individual or couples trust or will with Trust & Will for no cost. No matter which option you choose, having the right documents in place can make life easier for your loved ones after you’re gone — which could be one of the best gifts you can give.

In this article:

What is probate?

Before you understand how you can use services like Trust & Will to minimize the costs of probate, it’s important to understand what probate is.

“Probate is a court-supervised proceeding that authenticates your will, if you have one, and approves your named executor so that person can distribute your property and belongings,” explains Hicks. “During the probate process, your assets must be located and assessed for total value. Once that is done, taxes and debts are paid and the remaining value of the estate is distributed.”

Creating a will is easy — in many cases, you can create a simple online will in under an hour, not counting the witnessing and notarization process — and it’s one of the essential parts of modern estate planning.

However, unless you take a few extra steps beyond simple will preparation, your estate is likely to go through the probate process after your death — which could cost your loved ones both time and money.

How much does probate cost?

What is probate likely to cost — and who pays for it?

“Probate costs vary,” says Hicks. “It depends on the attorney fees, compensation for the executor, the probate bond, court fees, and creditor notice fees.” In general, Hicks estimates that probate will cost 2.5% of the value of the estate, which of course can add up to thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars in total.

The cost of probate generally comes out of the total value of the estate, and your loved ones are never responsible for paying probate fees out-of-pocket. However, any money that goes towards probate comes directly out of your loved ones’ inheritance — and if the value of the estate is lower than the cost of probate, your estate could be determined insolvent.

Luckily, there are many ways to keep probate costs low. Trust & Will, for example, offers easy online probate services to guide people through what can otherwise be a complicated and confusing time. “Probate starts at just $600 plus processing fees through Trust & Will,” Hicks told us—so keep that in mind as you continue the estate planning process.

Even if your estate has more than enough money to cover the costs of probate, it’s a good idea to learn how to avoid the costs of the probate process. When you’re building generational wealth, every penny counts — and the fees associated with probate could reduce the financial resources and assets passed on to the next generation.

How much time does probate take?

How long does it take to complete the probate process? In many cases, the process takes around six months — but in more complicated cases, probate can take a year or more.

“Probate can take varying amounts of time,” Hicks explains. “With small estates, the average time to complete the probate process could be less than six months.” That said, many people should expect the process to take at least half a year. “Six to nine months is not uncommon, if everything is seamless and nobody tries to contest the will.”

If a descendent or beneficiary does attempt to contest the will, expect probate to take more time. Complicated probate situations can take a year or more to resolve — which means your loved ones may have to wait a long time before receiving their inheritance.

“In complicated or contested situations, the process can take several years,” Hicks told us. That’s one more reason why it’s a good idea to learn everything you can about simplifying or avoiding the probate process.

Is it possible to bypass the probate process?

There are many ways to minimize the costs of probate — and a few ways to bypass the probate process completely. “You can avoid probate by establishing a living trust,” explains Hicks, “or by giving assets to loved ones while you’re still alive.”

Distributing assets to family members while you’re still living is one of the easiest ways to ensure your financial and tangible resources — cash, property, business ownerships — go to the people who are most likely to benefit from them. Be aware that certain types of gifts, including large cash gifts, may come with tax liabilities — and consider discussing any potential distributions with a CPA or lawyer before making the gifts to your loved ones.

Setting up a revocable living trust is another good way to manage your estate, especially if you are hoping to maintain control over your assets until your death. As the name suggests, a revocable trust can be changed — or revoked — at any time while you are still alive.

When you create a revocable living trust, you designate how you want specific assets to be distributed — and after your death, the assets held within the trust are distributed accordingly. This allows you to transfer cash, real estate, heirlooms, investments, business ownerships and other gifts to loved ones without going through a costly, complicated or unnecessary probate process.

There are a few more ways to avoid the complications associated with probate — although not all of these options allow you to bypass probate completely. Keeping your estate small, for example, could simplify the probate process for your descendents and beneficiaries. Setting up a joint title on a family home — either with a spouse, a partner or an adult child — is another good way to manage assets while avoiding probate.

You can also create a “payable on death” bank account, often called a POD or a Totten Trust. This type of account allows you to set aside a sum of money that is paid out, on your death, to a designated individual — and gives you one more way of transferring assets without the hassle of probate.Taking the time to plan your estate in a way that avoids the costs of probate is one of the best gifts you can give your loved ones. Think of it as a way to pass along not only generational wealth, but also generational health — in terms of less stress, less anxiety and an easier transfer of assets from one generation to another.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Our disclosures

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.

Haven Life Plus (Plus) is the marketing name for the Plus rider, which is included as part of the Haven Term policy and offers access to additional services and benefits at no cost or at a discount. The rider is not available in every state and is subject to change at any time. Neither Haven Life nor MassMutual are responsible for the provision of the benefits and services made accessible under the Plus Rider, which are provided by third party vendors (partners). For more information about Haven Life Plus, please visit: https://havenlife.com/plus

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