If individuals choose to organize their affairs while they are alive, it is called Estate Planning. If individuals fail to plan while they are alive, then the process to organize their affairs is called Probate. Either way, if an individual has assets, his or estate will be organized by someone.
Estate Planning focuses on getting your assets to who you want, how you want, in the manner you want. To do this, we use a variety of tools including durable Powers of Attorney, Wills, Living Trusts, and Other Trusts (SNT, QTIP, Qualified Spousal Trust, Marital Deduction Trust). Like most things in life, when people take time to plan, they are more satisfied with the end result. When estate planning clients leave my office they are satisfied that they know how their assets are going to and when the transfer will take place.
Probate is the alternative to Estate Planning. It is the State’s estate plan for you. Each state has its own probate laws. In Missouri, the probate laws are found in Chapter 473 of the Missouri Revised Statutes. Say John and Jane are married and have 3 children together. If John passes away, the probate laws of Missouri (RSMO 474.010) state that Mary would get the first $20,000 of his estate and only half of the remaining estate. The other half of the remaining estate would go to the children. So to keep it simple, on an estate of $200,000, Jane would only receive $120,000 while the children would receive $80,000. Probably not what either John or Jane would have wanted. And this could have easily been prevented with simple estate planning.
Free options to avoid this include having Joint Accounts or Naming a Payable on Death beneficiary. Other, more powerful options include having a Will or a Revocable Living Trust. Simply not planning and hoping things will take care of themselves, is tough to justify when the solution is either free or fairly inexpensive. Planning is better.