How to Avoid Probate
Many people are unaware as to the amount of information made available to the public over the internet during the probate process at the death of an individual. The internet often allows the public to access probate records from home or office and to view a decedent’s financial account names and numbers, details of such accounts, as well as the beneficiaries of the estate and their contact information. One can easily access the details of an estate of a decedent who was a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio through the Hamilton County, Ohio Probate Court website.
The well-known late owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, died in 2004 and an inventory of her probate assets is listed on the probate court website for all to see. A few interesting items to note are that she had over $45 million in a Fifth Third Bank account (#0072041717), loaned Deaconess Hospital $2.75 million and invested $100,000 in a company that sells sports radar speed sensors.
Does public knowledge of such detailed information along with the contact information of all beneficiaries open the door to potential identity theft? As my colleague, Janel Carroll, addressed in June’s Viewpoint, identity theft is on the rise and this criminal activity is becoming increasingly organized and sophisticated.
What can be done?
What can be done to avoid having this information become public knowledge at the death of an individual? The most important factor is to pay close attention to how assets are titled. Any assets titled in your individual name must pass through probate. However, assets titled in the following manner will avoid the probate process and thus avoid becoming public information:
- Any assets titled in your trust name;
- Joint assets with rights of survivorship;
- Any asset where a beneficiary can be named (such as an IRA, 401k or annuity which avoids probate as long as your estate is not named as the beneficiary);
- Any accounts payable or transferable on death.
Titling your assets appropriately to avoid probate is important to avoid public disclosure, but appropriate titling of assets between spouses is also critical to minimizing or even eliminating estate taxes. We recommend working closely with an attorney specializing in estate planning to ensure assets are properly titled.