Transfer of property at death can be rather complex. Many are under the impression that instructions provided in a valid will are sufficient to transfer their assets to the individuals named in the will. However, there are a myriad of rules that affect how different types of assets transfer to heirs and beneficiaries, often in direct contradiction of what may be clearly stated in one's will.
The legal process of administering property owned by someone who has passed away with a will is called probate. Prior to his passing, a deceased person, or decedent, usually names an executor to oversee the process by which his wishes, outlined in his Will, are to be carried out. Probate property, generally consists of everything in a decedent's estate that was directly in his name. For example, a house, vehicle, monies, stocks or any other asset in the decedent's name is probate property. Any real or personal property that was in the decedent's name can be defined as probate property.
The difference between non-probate property and probate centers around whose name is listed as owner. Non-probate property consists of property that lists both the decedent and another as the joint owner (with right of survivorship) or where someone else has already been designated as a beneficiary, such as life insurance or a retirement account. In these cases, the joint owners and designated beneficiaries supersede conflicting instructions in one's will. Other examples of non-probate property include property owned by trusts, which also have beneficiaries designated. At the decedent's passing, the non-probate items pass automatically to whoever is the joint owner or designated beneficiary.
Why do you need to know the difference? Simply put, the categories of probate and non-probate property will have a serious effect on how plan your estate. If you own property jointly with right of survivorship with another individual, that individual will inherit your share, regardless of what it states in your will. Estate and probate law can be different from state-to-state, so it's best to have an attorney handle your estate plan and property ownership records to ensure that your assets go to the intended beneficiaries.