When planning your estate, you must consider how you hold title to your real and personal property. The title and your designated beneficiaries will control how your real estate, bank accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and investments are distributed upon your death, regardless of whether there is a will or trust in place and potentially with a result that you never intended.
One of the most important steps in establishing your estate plan is transferring title to your assets. If you have created a living trust, it is absolutely useless if you fail to transfer the title on your accounts, real estate or other property into the trust. Unless the assets are formally transferred into your living trust, they will not be subject to the terms of the trust and will be subject to probate.
Even if you don't have a living trust, how you hold title to your property can still help your heirs avoid probate altogether. This ensures that your assets can be quickly transferred to the beneficiaries, and saves them the time and expense of a probate proceeding. Listed below are three of the most common ways to hold title to property; each has its advantages and drawbacks, depending on your personal situation.
Tenants in Common: When two or more individuals each own an undivided share of the property, it is known as a tenancy in common. Each co-tenant can transfer or sell his or her interest in the property without the consent of the co-tenants. In a tenancy in common, a deceased owner's interest in the property continues after death and is distributed to the decedent's heirs. Property titled in this manner is subject to probate, unless it is held in a living trust, but it enables you to leave your interest in the property to your own heirs rather than the property's co-owners.
Joint Tenants: In joint tenancy, two or more owners share a whole, undivided interest with right of survivorship. Upon the death of a joint tenant, the surviving joint tenants immediately become the owners of the entire property. The decedent's interest in the property does not pass to his or her beneficiaries, regardless of any provisions in a living trust or will. A major advantage of joint tenancy is that a deceased joint tenant's interest in the property passes to the surviving joint tenants without the asset going through probate. Joint tenancy has its disadvantages, too. Property owned in this manner can be attached by the creditors of any joint tenant, which could result in significant losses to the other joint tenants. Additionally, a joint tenant's interest in the property cannot be sold or transferred without the consent of the other joint tenants.
Community Property with Right of Survivorship: Some states allow married couples to take title in this manner. When property is held this way, a surviving spouse automatically inherits the decedent's interest in the property, without probate.
Make sure your estate planning attorney has a list of all of your property and exactly how you hold title to each asset, as this will directly affect how your property is distributed after you pass on. Automatic rules governing survivorship will control how property is distributed, regardless of what is stated in your will or living trust.