One way to avoid U.S. Federal estate and gift taxes is to distribute the property in incremental gifts during the person's lifetime. Individuals may give away as much as $15,000 per year (in 2018) without incurring gift tax. Other tax free alternatives include paying a grandchild's college tuition or medical insurance premiums free of gift tax—but only if the payments are made directly to the educational institution or medical provider.
In general, the probate court probates the wills of deceased persons; establishes guardianships for incapacitated persons and minors; supervises the administration of the estates of deceased persons and incapacitated persons and minors; hears matters involving inter vivos, testamentary and charitable trusts; and hears all cases involving civil mental health commitments.
Probate is required if the deceased person owned real property or if his or her other assets are above the threshold amount, which is usually $50,000 for major banks and lower thresholds for other financial institutions. Assets that had been “owned jointly” (but not assets held “in common”) pass automatically to the other joint owner and do not form part of the deceased estate. Also, benefits from life insurance on the deceased paid directly to a nominee is not part of the estate, nor are trust assets held by the deceased as trustee.
Executors "step into the shoes" of the deceased and have similar rights and powers to wind up the personal affairs of the deceased. This may include continuing or filing lawsuits that the deceased was entitled to bring, making claims for wrongful death, paying off creditors, or selling or disposing of assets not particularly gifted in the will, among others. But the role of the executor is to resolve the testator's estate and to distribute the estate to the beneficiaries or those otherwise entitled.
Before exploring the types of probate, we want to express our option that if you have been named as the executor of an estate, probating a will is not something that you should try to do alone. As the executor, you have the fiduciary responsibility to make sure all estate matters are handled properly, and experienced legal counsel is essential to avoid needless mistakes and delays in the probate process.
However, many accounts, such as bank savings, CD accounts, and individual brokerage accounts, are unnecessarily probated every day. If you hold these accounts, they can be set up—or amended—to have a transfer on death (TOD) designation, which lets beneficiaries receive assets without going through the probate process. Contact your custodian or bank to set this up on your accounts.