Useful information to help guide
your probate process

Suppose that a person were to die unexpectedly in their thirties, when they’ve had time to build their wealth but long before most people think to begin the process of estate planning in earnest.

What would happen to this person’s estate, assuming that they passed without drawing up their last will and testament?

Dying without leaving behind a will is known as dying intestate, and it’s a more common occurrence than you might think.

In the Chicago area, there is a fairly straightforward process set into motion for handling intestate estates, the property, and assets left behind when an individual passes without any legally-binding guiding documents.

It all comes down to Illinois law, specifically the Illinois Probate Act, which offers directions for what happens to an estate with no will. A few things to keep in mind…

An Administrator Must Be Named

Generally, when a person passes away with a will in place, the decedent names the executor of their estate, or the person tasked with overseeing the distribution of their assets, the handling of their debts, and other important matters.

When you work with individuals dealing with matters of estate planning and administration, you routinely encounter people who are vulnerable, apprehensive, and emotionally overwhelmed.

These can be some of the most vulnerable points in a person’s life. After all, no one wants to take time to plan for the event of their death, to lay their accounts and personal information out in the open and look ahead at their own mortality. It doesn’t matter who you are, this can be a scary, melancholy, and emotionally taxing endeavor to undertake.

Similarly, it can be a trying and emotionally raw experience to act as an executor or administrator for an estate, handling a loved one’s affairs after they have passed.

In addition to grappling with all of the strict deadlines and complicated tasks that come along with handling an estate – including paying off debts, closing accounts, overseeing distribution of assets, filing paperwork with the courts, and much more – survivors may also still feel stunned or sorrowful over the loss of a loved one.

In times such as these, it may be important to bring on a partner with an objective eye, capable of seeing matters from the outside and offering impartial guidance whenever necessary.

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On top of the grief and the sadness, the passing of a loved one often comes with other emotions – confusion chief among them.

If you’re wondering about what to do – and even where to start – after the passing of a loved one in Chicago or elsewhere in Illinois, here are a few important points to keep in mind:

1.) Attain a Death Certificate

When your loved one passes, one of the first steps to take is to secure a legal pronouncement of death (particularly if they died alone, and without a doctor present). Once you secure a legal pronouncement, it can be recorded as a death certificate, which will be an essential document for the estate administration and probate processes. You will likely wish to attain multiple certified copies of the deceased’s death certificate, as many institutions, organizations, and other interested parties may require one.

2.) Contact Family, Friends, and Work Associates

Following the death of a loved one, someone will need to take on the critical job of notifying the decedent’s family and friends, often via phone or email. Once the ball gets rolling, a phone tree generally forms, as individuals pass around the news to their own networks.

Think of the loved ones who have depended on or supported you over the years; the organizations and community groups that have enriched your life; the friends who have always been there for you.

If you want to provide for all of these people when you pass away, then it’s important to begin considering your estate plan, including matters of wills and trusts.

In order to ensure the equitable designation of your assets in line with your wishes, you’ll need to be thorough, organized, and up-to-date when it comes to all elements of your estate plan.

When creating a will that will move quickly and efficiently through the probate process, one of the most critical considerations is who will inherit your various assets, a group usually known as beneficiaries (or legatees, or, sometimes, inheritors).

Who Can I Name as a Beneficiary in a Will?

When it comes to designating beneficiaries, one hard and fast rule to bear in mind is that you cannot name anyone who was a witness to the signing of your will. Beyond that, broadly speaking, you have the right to give your assets or property to whomever you choose, including:

  • A spouse
  • Children
  • Grandchildren
  • Other relatives (such as nieces or nephews, for example)
  • Friends
  • Charities and other institutions or organizations (such as churches or schools)

Of course, it’s also important to remember that there are many stipulations and considerations that can apply to these different groups or individuals. Across the board, for instance, clarity is important; as you name beneficiaries in your will, you’ll want to ensure that you’re using a clear, precise, recognizable name, and considering the possibility of naming alternates.

When it comes to finding an attorney with experience and expertise in matters relating to estate planning, estate administration, and probate, a degree up on a wall is one thing.

But, in many cases, it’s important to dig deeper than that to find the pro who’s right for you.

Finding the legal professional or team that is the right fit for you can be tricky – particularly when it comes to such a delicate matter. Here are a few questions you may want to ask in order to find the probate pro who is right for your needs:

“What Is Their Level of Expertise?”

Does this probate attorney (or their team) have a working knowledge of all aspects of this sometimes-complicated process? Are they probate and estate specialists? Have they worked with clients in similar situations to yours before?

As you search for an attorney, it may be productive to ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is this attorney’s office easy to find online? Do I like the look and feel of their website?
  • Do they have many positive testimonials or referrals, as a firm or as individual lawyers?
  • Are they forthcoming with information and educational content?
  • Can I get a sense of their personal expertise and philosophy – and does it jibe with my own?

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Life is an ongoing process. The unique circumstances and facts of your life are dynamic, and changing all the time.

To better take care of your loved ones, eliminate unneeded stress, and secure your own peace of mind, you’ll want to treat your estate plan in the same way – recognizing it as an ongoing process, rather than thinking of it as a static set of documents that you can stash away and forget.

Think about it: How similar is your life right now to the life you were living, say, five or ten years ago?

Perhaps you’ve gotten married, or divorced? Maybe you’ve had a child. Maybe you’ve purchased new big-ticket assets, such as a house or a vehicle.

You’ve likely opened new lines of credit, or taken on new debts. Perhaps you’ve started a business, or entered retirement.

Maybe you’ve set up a new financial account, or started with a new insurance policy, or found a new avenue for investing your money.

These common little everyday details of life add up –and they all affect your estate plan, which tends to become more complex and detailed over time.

For instance, changes in financial standing, marital status, or personal relationships will all affect end-of-life planning. As the years pass, you may wish to rewrite your will to change your beneficiaries, as an example, or to update who will be named as guardian of your children. You may reassess who you will name your powers of attorney for healthcare and property, as your personal relationships grow and evolve. If you’re young and relatively healthy when you first set up your advanced healthcare directives, you may wish to revisit your wishes as you get older.

 

Before we pass away, most of us want to ensure some level of security for the friends and family that we’ll be leaving behind.

Whether that means ensuring that financial matters are handled, protecting their peace of mind, or leaving them as smooth a transition as possible, it’s only natural to want to provide for your loved ones.

But that leaves another question – what’s the best way to protect your family when you’re no longer around?

For the sake of your own peace of mind – not to mention for the benefit of your loved ones – it’s important to leave a clear plan in place for what will happen with your assets, including financial accounts, real estate, and other property. We call this process estate planning, and it's an essential step on the way to a shorter, more efficient probate process.

Most of us would like to imagine that, when we eventually pass away, the process will be easy for our loved ones.

Our friends and family will quickly and effortlessly inherit what was left to them, your earthly affairs will be wrapped up in a timely manner, and no one will need to spend their time or money dealing with hassles such as creditors or legal red tape.

In reality, however, the picture can be a little less rosy.

For instance, consider some of these stunning statistics, compiled from various sources by LegalZoom:

  • More than half (55%) of American adults do not have a will (or other estate plan) in place
  • A complicated will may take over two years to probate; even a simple one may take as much as six months
  • According to estimates from one law firm, probate may cost American families as much as $2 billion every year
  • Many Americans wait until they’re older to begin with any aspect of estate planning; over 90% of probated wills were made by someone 60 or older; still, the AARP estimates that a shocking 41% of baby boomers did not have a will as recently as 2012
  • While the numbers are rising, only 41% of Americans had living wills as recently as 2007; at the same time, just about one-third of adults (38%) have a healthcare power of attorney

What these numbers tell us is that, if you’re confused or reluctant to get started with estate planning, you’re clearly in good company.

But here’s the rub. The reality behind these stats is one full of families feeling stuck in prolonged court proceedings, bogged down by potentially massive payments, caught up in confusing bureaucracy, and waiting years to receive their anticipated inheritance.

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