“Though my job can be technical, I am sensitive to our clients’ grief
and always want them to feel supported.”
—MELISSA AITKEN

What is Probate?

Probate is a process which occurs when a person dies, and a court must dispose of the property of the decedent (person who passed away). The decedent may have certain debts against them and may have a will which directs where the court should distribute the property.

During the probate process, the Probate Court will take probate fees out of the estate and ensure that things like funeral expenses and estate administrator fees are paid. The Probate Court has broad powers to conduct the probate process, direct the conduct of the Personal Representative of an estate, and pass orders to administer the estate.

The Probate process requires a knowledgeable Trust & Probate Administration attorney by your side

The probate process is almost always a necessary event after the death of a loved one. Depending on your estate plan, or lack thereof, the Trust and Probate Administration process can prove relatively short or unduly long. In either case, navigating the probate process requires specific knowledge and experience. At Altman & Associates, our probate attorneys have the knowledge and experience to effectively guide you and your family through the probate process.

The probate and trust administration process can be quite complicated. There is typically a myriad of paperwork, financial accounts, insurance policies and retirement plans, as well as real and personal property to deal with. Paying special attention to beneficiary designations and how assets are titled is crucial during this time, and Altman & Associates can help ensure the estate is properly administered.

Is All Property Subject to the Probate Process?

No, some if not most of your property need not be subject to the probate process. Maryland law, for example, only recognizes certain assets as part of your estate for the purposes of probate court.  The “net estate” in probate court is made up “property of the decedent” or person who has died. Therefore, assets which are not solely and directly owned by the decedent are not probate assets.

Generally, the less probate assets in an estate the more simple the probate process, and there are various ways to avoid a lengthy probate process. We work to help you understand your assets and plan for a less stressful future for you and your family.

How Does the Probate Process Become Difficult?

First and foremost, probate happens during the very emotionally difficult time following the death of a loved one. Mourning the loss of a family member and dealing with legal matters in Probate Court can prove both financially and emotionally taxing. There are many additional issues which can creep into the probate process and cause significant stress, such as:

  • If a decedent passes with significant debts to creditors.
  • If a decedent dies “intestate” or without a will, leaving the Probate Court to apportion their estate.
  • When conflicting wills or final wishes exist, or other disputes involving the passing of a decedent’s property arise.
  • When a decedent dies with a trust established, but the beneficiaries of the trust are dissatisfied with its terms.
  • If pre-existing family disputes are magnified due to the death a decedent and the subsequent distribution of their estate.

Most of the time, proper estate planning can help avoid potential issues in probate. There are always planning strategies to minimize the probate process, however the best way to avoid difficulty in the probate process is to carefully and transparently plan for the future with your family, along with Altman & Associates planning attorneys. Dealing with potential issues now will save you and your family much stress and financial loss later.

Trust and Probation Administration Checklist

In the absence of a Will or Trust, property titled in the decedent’s individual name will be settled under state intestacy laws.  As the overseer of a decedent’s estate, the personal representative or trustee has a duty to settle,  and the duties of a personal representative or trustee may include:

  • Petition the appropriate court for authority to settle the estate
  • Take possession or control of estate assets
  • Determine who inherits estate assets and at what value or percentage
  • Value or appraise assets
  • Prepare an inventory of property of the estate
  • Manage, protect and preserve the estate until distribution or liquidation
  • Notify and pay applicable creditors
  • File the decedent’s final tax return
  • Pay estate taxes, if any
  • Prepare a final accounting
  • Distribute the estate

Probate Beneficiary Rights

Beneficiaries’ Right to Information. During probate, beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate may demand information from the executor. Information a beneficiary is entitled to includes what assets the estate holds, how much debt the estate needs to pay and which assets are being used or sold to settle that debt.

Altman & Associates Will Guide You Through the Probate Process

Altman & Associates will guide you through the probate process…or help you plan to avoid tt altogether.  The probate process often has a bad reputation, and you may have heard “horror stories” from friends or family who have gone through a difficult probate process. But the process need not be difficult for you and your family if you take preemptive action. To discuss how we can assist you with probate, contact us to schedule a consultation. We have offices conveniently located in Columbia, Rockville, D.C. and Northern Virginia.

Melissa Aitken and Jamie Zhang head the Altman probate practice area team.

What You Should Know About Maryland Probate

A comprehensive estate plan may save your family time and money. Although many people will have some interaction with a probate court in their lifetime, most know little about how it works. Equipping yourself and loved ones with some basic knowledge about the Maryland probate process can help you determine how you’d like your estate to be handled.

You should be aware that the Maryland probate process applied depends on the size of the estate. Small estates, generally those with total assets valued at $30,000 or less ($50,000 or less if passing to a surviving spouse), are entitled to a simplified procedure. The value of the estate also determines the court fees that will be assessed. Currently in Maryland, probate fees range from $50 to more than $2,500. This is exclusive of attorney’s fees, which, again, will usually depend on the complexity and size of the estate.

In addition to costs, probate also usually takes more time than other estate planning mechanisms, such as trusts. The average length of a trust administration is estimated to be four to six months, though it could be significantly longer for large, complex estates and those which have a number of creditors. It’s also important to know that the probate process is not private. Once entered by the court, generally the entire estate proceeding becomes a public record.

The probate process begins when the decedent’s named representative files a Petition for Probate with the court. The court, referred to as the Orphan’s Court in Maryland, will oversee the estate administration in accordance with the instructions in the decedent’s will. If a Marylander passes without a will, state law will determine how their assets will be distributed. In this case, the rules the state will apply depend on marital status, whether the person has any children, the age of the children, and other factors.

Not all property will need to be probated. Only property solely owned by the decedent, with some exceptions, goes through the probate process.  For example, if a husband and wife jointly own a house and the husband passes, the wife will usually retain ownership without needing a court’s intervention. Additionally, property which is “payable on death,” such as life insurance policies or retirement funds, will automatically pass to the designated beneficiary.

You should also know that there are estate planning options available to you that may allow you to avoid the probate process even in the case of solely owned assets. The most popular method is a trust, usually accompanied by what is called a “pour-over will.” Essentially, a short will “pours over” all of the decedent’s assets into the trust. A named trustee is then responsible for managing the trust’s assets and distributing them in accordance with its creator’s wishes.

Each family is different, requiring their own, personalized estate plan. The right choice for you will depend on your situation, including the complexity and size of your assets. No matter the size of your estate, you should have a plan in place. The best approach to ensuring your wishes are executed is to work with a knowledgeable Maryland estate planning attorney to create a plan that is as unique as your family. At Altman and Associations, we provide the individualized attention you deserve. For more than 20 years, we have helped families through probate proceedings. We work with you to avoid unnecessary court proceedings where possible. Learn more about your options by contacting us today. Our offices are conveniently located in the Rockville, Bethesda area and in Columbia, Maryland. Call us toll-free at 301-468-3220 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.

How can I avoid probate in Maryland?

While it’s difficult to avoid probate entirely in Maryland there are a number of legal instruments that can be used to streamline and simplify the process. The living trust is the most widely used of these tools. Through a living trust, you transfer ownership of your property to yourself as the trustee while you are living. You then name someone to replace you as trustee in the event of your death. This is important for a few reasons, including:

  • Avoiding Probate – Any assets governed by the trust will not have to go through the Probate Court upon your death.
  • Managing Affairs while Living – You can also specify that your trust go into effect while you are alive in the event you become incapacitated. This allows your chosen representative to assist in providing for your care and administering your affairs if you are unable to do so.
  • Tax Planning – A living trust can be essential in efficient tax planning. Trusts allow you to distribute assets over time and per a specified schedule, which can be advantageous for your beneficiaries.

Often, a will can complement your living trust. We may recommend an accompanying “pour-over will” which automatically transfers, or pours over, any leftover assets into your trust once you pass away. Helpfully, this avoids the problem of having to update your trust every time you obtain new property. After a thorough review of your individual situation and assets, our skilled attorneys can provide detailed advice on how a living trust might benefit you and your family. We are committed to seeing your needs and wishes properly executed through your comprehensive estate plan.

How can you streamline the distribution of my real estate assets?

How you title your real estate will also affect whether it needs to pass through probate court. For instance, you may consider owning your home as a joint tenant with right of survivorship with your spouse or other heir. In this case, the surviving joint tenant retains sole ownership of the property in the event of the other’s death. Since the decedent’s ownership in the property ended at their death, it is not considered to be part of their estate.

If probate is required, there are certain mechanisms in place to smooth the process. Maryland offers a simplified track for small estates, for example. An experienced, local estate planning attorney is your best resource in evaluating your estate. Our Columbia estate planning attorneys have the knowledge and experience to organize your estate for maximum efficiency, and can assist you in making appropriate adjustments among your assets.