Probate in Georgia – the process that transfers your assets to your loved ones after your death – is lengthy, confusing, and expensive, but an Atlanta estate planning attorney can prepare an estate plan for you that avoids probate and transfers your assets quickly to those you love.

What happens during probate? What are the steps you can take to avoid the process? How will an Atlanta probate attorney help you? If you’ll keep reading this brief discussion of estate planning and probate in the State of Georgia, you will learn the answers to these questions.

In Georgia, What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

In Georgia, if you die without preparing a will, any assets that remain after your debts, taxes, and probate costs are paid will go to your living relatives according to the “intestate succession” rules established by state law in Georgia. If you pass away without a will but with a spouse and:

  1.  no children, your spouse inherits the remaining estate
  2.  a child, they divide your estate equally
  3.  several children, your spouse gets a third and the children equally split what remains

If you leave behind no will, and if you die with children but no spouse, your children (including adopted children) split what remains of your estate after probate. If you have no spouse or children, your assets go to your parents, and if you also have no living parents, to your siblings.

If you have no will and no living spouse, children, parents, or siblings, your aunts, uncles, cousins, or even a more distant relative could eventually receive your assets. If you have no will and no living relatives, your assets will go to the State of Georgia.

What Happens During Probate?

Whether or not you prepare a last will and testament, if your estate holds assets, it may go through the probate process. If you did not prepare a will and name an executor, the court will appoint an administrator – usually a surviving spouse or adult child, but it could be almost anyone – to ensure that the decedent’s debts are paid and that the assets are properly distributed.

An executor or administrator compiles the decedent’s assets, pays any outstanding taxes and debts, and distributes what remains to the beneficiaries. Probate is a court-supervised process that may take up to a year – or longer if there are any disputes over the estate’s assets or debts.

What happens next is that the assets of the decedent’s estate are inventoried and evaluated. Then, the outstanding taxes and debts are paid, and any remaining assets are transferred to the decedent’s heirs according to the instructions left by the decedent in the will, if there is a will.

If you do not prepare a will, your remaining assets will be distributed according to the intestate succession rules established by Georgia law, as explained previously.

When Is Probate Required?

Assets owned exclusively by the decedent with no second owner and no beneficiary designation will require probate. However, assets including joint bank accounts and investments with transferable-on-death designations do not require probate.

Additionally, pension benefits, life insurance proceeds, and property owned in joint tenancy may also transfer directly to the beneficiaries with no requirement for probate.

A living trust is a popular and effective tool for shielding an estate’s assets from the probate process. You can set up a living trust with the advice and guidance of an Atlanta estate planning attorney.

Should You Establish a Living Trust?

Probate is a time-consuming and costly legal process. Your estate will pay court costs, attorneys’ fees, executor’s fees, appraiser’s fees, and other expenses. Probate can substantially reduce what your beneficiaries receive, but assets moved into a living trust are protected from probate.

When you establish a living trust with assistance from an Atlanta probate attorney, you may act as the trustee during your lifetime and transfer real estate, stocks, bonds, vehicles, and mutual funds – in other words, virtually anything you own – into the trust.

When you set up the trust, you will name a successor trustee who will manage the trust’s assets for you and your beneficiaries after you pass away. By placing your assets and properties in a living trust, your estate and your beneficiaries can avoid the probate process.

Your trustee – and not a Georgia probate court – will administer your estate, pay the debts and taxes, and transfer to your beneficiaries whatever assets remain. Your trustee and beneficiaries will avoid the time and aggravation – and the considerable cost – of the probate process.

What Other Advantages Do Living Trusts Provide?

Another advantage that living trusts provide is privacy. The probate process is a court proceeding that is a part of the public record, but a living trust keeps your financial and business affairs private.

Some parents use living trusts to help them provide appropriately for their children. With a will, if you leave assets to a minor child, when that child turns 18 years old, he or she gains control over the assets.

But a living trust lets you establish specific conditions for your child’s acquisition of your assets. For example, you might require the child to turn age 25 or to finish college before access to the assets is allowed. You may establish any requirement that is fair and reasonable.

What Else Should You Know About Probate and Living Trusts?

If you are an adult in Georgia, and you are seeking security for your loved ones and protection for your assets, a living trust may be the answer you are looking for.

You need to avoid the “do-it-yourself” estate planning kits and pre-printed trust forms that you can find for free online. Instead, ask an attorney who regularly handles estate planning and living trusts to help you personalize your trust and to help you avoid any potential pitfalls.

A living trust is only one part of a comprehensive estate plan. A Georgia estate planning lawyer can explain more about trusts and estate planning, and your lawyer can discuss with you the entire range of your estate planning and trust options.

An estate planning lawyer can also customize your trust so that it meets your family’s specific needs, protects your assets, and provides long-term financial security to those you love. You can’t know what tomorrow may bring, so the time to contact an estate planning attorney is today.