When a loved one passes away, how do you manage their assets? While many estates must go through a court process called probate, there may be alternatives available to your family.
The first step in determining how to distribute assets upon the death of a loved one is to determine what legal procedures are required. This depends on many factors, including what the assets are, whether the assets have a title (like a house, a car, or a bank account) or not (personal possessions), who stands to inherit, whether the deceased was married, and the total value of the assets, among other things. Another set of factors to consider is whether your loved one had a valid will or trust.
I advise clients to first make a list of everything the deceased owned and to fill out a table like the example below:
After completing the table, we can determine rather quickly what needs to be done. First, we separate the property into two categories: probate property and non-probate property. Probate property is property that belongs to the deceased person’s estate, meaning that it does not have a beneficiary designation, is not held in joint tenancy, and is not held in a valid trust. Non-probate property is everything that passes directly to a beneficiary (or joint tenant) upon the death of the owner.
Of the assets listed in the example table above, only the personal property and the checking account are probate property because they have no beneficiary designations. So now that we have identified the probate assets, the next step is to determine if a probate court proceeding is required. Under Oklahoma law, if the decedent’s entire probate estate is valued less than $50,000, the assets may be passed to the heirs under an affidavit of heirship – a simple document that does not require court approval. In the example above, the probate assets total only $1,500, so the estate is eligible for distribution under an affidavit of heirship. If the deceased left a Will, then that document will determine who receives the assets. If the deceased did not leave a Will, then Oklahoma law will determine who the heirs are.
Even with a relatively simple estate like the one in this example, it can be confusing and sometimes overwhelming for families to work through this process alone. I work with families every day to handle the details of distributing an estate so they can focus on taking care of their loved ones and grieve for their loss.