An Overview of North Carolina Probate

Estate administration refers to the process of probating the estate of a decedent, which generally includes collecting, inventorying and appraising assets; gathering and paying debts; filing and paying estate taxes; and distributing any remaining assets to beneficiaries. An experienced Raleigh probate and estate administration attorney can help simplify this complicated process. If you need help in the administration of an estate, contact Evan Lohr at (919)348-9211 or at evan@lohrnc.com.

Probate

The estate is the total amount of property that is owned by the decedent at his or her death (excluding real property unless it is necessary to pay creditors) and that has not already been set up to transfer automatically (such as transfer by joint tenancy or payment to a named beneficiary of an insurance policy). If there is a will, the clerk of court will determine if the will is valid and then oversee the administration of the estate by the executor (the person appointed in the will by the decedent to oversee the estate). If there is no will or the will is determined to be invalid, the clerk of court will appoint an administrator and the decedent’s property will be distributed according to North Carolina’s intestacy statute.

Executor’s Duties

The executor is the person named by the decedent in the will to administer the estate. The executor has many important functions to complete, including:

  • Gathering and inventorying all assets of the estate
  • Appraising the assets
  • Collecting any payments or debts owed to the estate
  • Paying any valid debts owed by the estate
  • Filing and paying local, state and federal taxes
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries according to the will or state law

The executor owes fiduciary duties to anyone who has an interest in the estate. This means that the executor owes a duty of loyalty and must act in the best interests of the estate. For example, if the executor mismanages estate assets and causes the estate to lose value, he or she can be held liable for these actions and may have to repay the estate the amount of the lost value.

Preserving Estate Assets

An important but sometimes neglected responsibility in administering an estate is to look for opportunities to preserve assets for distribution. Reducing estate taxes is one way that an estate can retain more of its wealth for the decedent’s heirs. Some of the ways to accomplish this are:

  • Consider whether administration expenses and casualty losses should be reported on the estate tax return or on the estate’s income tax return
  • Consider whether there are income tax savings opportunities on the decedent’s final return (such as whether or not a joint income tax return should be filed with the surviving spouse)
  • Consider whether assets should be valued at the date of the decedent’s death or six months later (or, if assets have been distributed prior to six months after the decedent’s death, the date of the disposition of the assets)

Probate and Non-Probate Assets

Probate assets are subject to court administration. Probate can be an expensive and long process, and beneficiaries may have to wait anywhere from one to two years to receive the property left to them in the will. Probate assets include assets owned only by the decedent that do not have a named beneficiary.

Non-probate assets do not have to go through probate. These assets are typically distributed more quickly to the appropriate beneficiaries since a probate proceeding is not required. Non-probate assets generally include:

  • Property owned in joint tenancy  with right of survivorship or by tenancy by the entirety
  • Payment on Death (POD) bank accounts
  • Transfer on Death (TOD) securities
  • Life insurance policies that designate a beneficiary other than the decedent’s estate
  • IRAs, 401(k) accounts, and other retirement plans that name a beneficiary other than the decedent’s estate

Speak to a Probate Lawyer

Guiding an estate through the probate process and effectively administering that estate requires a thorough understanding of North Carolina probate procedure and tax laws. If you need assistance administering an estate, contact Evan Lohr at (919)348-9211 or evan@lohrnc.com.

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Notice to Creditors in North Carolina Probate

Upon the appointment of the executor or administrator of a North Carolina probate estate, the personal representative or collector must notify all people or businesses having claims against the decedent to present them to the personal representative or collector. The notice must state that all claims must be presented within three months from the day of the first newspaper publication of the notice. The notice shall set out a mailing address for the personal representative or collector and must be published once a week for four consecutive weeks in a newspaper qualified to publish legal advertisements.

The personal representative or collector must also send to the last known address a copy of the published ntice to all persons, firms, and corporations having unsatisfied claims against the decedent who are actually known or can be reasonably ascertained by the personal representative or collector within 75 days after the granting of letters and, if at the time of the decedent’s death the decedent was receiving medical assistance as defined by G.S. 108A-70.5(b)(1), to the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Medical Assistance. However, no notice shall be required to be delivered or mailed with respect to any claim that is recognized as a valid claim by the personal representative or collector.

A copy of the notice published, and an affidavit from a representative of the publishing company to the effect that such notice was published, along with an affidavit of the personal representative or collector, or the attorney for the personal representative or collector, to the effect that a copy of the notice was provided to each creditor shall be filed in the office of the clerk of superior court by the personal representative or collector at the time the 90 day inventory is filed.

“In Terrorem” Clauses

Many wills include provisions that are referred to as “in terrorem” or “no contest” clauses. An example of this type of clause may read, “In the event that any provision of my last will and testament is contested by any of the parties mentioned herein, the portion or portions of the estate to which such party or parties would be entitled shall be disposed of in the same manner as though their name or names had not been mentioned herein.” Essentially, the goal of an in terrorem clause is to attempt to dissuade a beneficiary from contesting a will in court. It should be pointed out that these clauses have no effect on someone who is not a beneficiary under the will submitted for probate – if they have no beneficial interest under the will as it is written, then they have nothing to lose by contesting the will.

Moreover, the presence of a no contest clause does not necessarily mean that a beneficiary will lose their inheritance if they file an action to contest the will. In Ryan v. Wachovia Bank & Trust Co., 235 N.C. 585, 70 S.E.2d 853 (1952), the North Carolina Supreme Court found that in terrorem clauses would not be enforced when the caveat is based on good faith and probable cause. In addition, it is generally held that the provisions of a “no contest” clause are to be strictly construed and not extended beyond their express terms. Haley v. Pickelsimer, 261 N.C. 293, 134 S.E.2d 697 (1964).

If you are a named beneficiary in a will that contains an in terrorem clause and want to contest the will, it is advisable to consult with an attorney prior to doing so, to ensure that contesting the will does not result in the loss of your interest under the will.

Evan Lohr is an estates attorney in Raleigh. He can be reached at evan@lohrnc.com or at (919) 348-9211.

A Primer on North Carolina Living Trusts

Most clients who seek me out for estate planning advice generally ask for help in drafting and executing a will for them. While a will is a necessary part of an estate plan, a trust can also be a very important part of that plan – and not just for the wealthy. The various benefits of trusts – discussed below – often provide valuable results for people of all income levels.

The most widely used type of trust is referred to as a living trust (also referred to as an “inter vivos” trust). A trust is a legal arrangement where a person called the “grantor” transfers property to be held by an individual called the “trustee” for the benefit of a third party, referred to as a “beneficiary.”  While many times the grantor, trustee and beneficiary are different people, that is not always be the case. Sometimes, the grantor, trustee and beneficiary can be the same person.

A living or inter vivos trust is one that is created during the lifetime of the grantor. In most cases, the grantor is both the trustee and the beneficiary during their lifetime. Usually, the grantor reserves the right to revoke the trust. After the death of the grantor, the terms of the trust control the disposition of the assets. In the usual case, the grantor’s spouse, if living, will receive the assets of the trust, either outright, or through distributions of the trust. If the spouse is not living, the grantor’s children or other chosen beneficiaries will receive distributions from the trust. These distributions can be made either by giving the property to the beneficiaries outright or by a successor trustee continuing to administer the trust until the time that the grantor specified that the beneficiaries are of a sufficient age to receive the remainder of their share.

The primary benefits of incorporating a living trust into your estate plan are avoiding the expense and hassle of probate in North Carolina, privacy, and avoiding ancillary probate in another state in which you own real property. When property passes via a will, a probate proceeding must be opened. The process can sometimes be time-consuming and expensive, and documents filed in a probate proceeding are public record which can be viewed by anyone, including a person intentionally disinherited under the terms of the will. Also, if you own property in another state, an ancillary probate proceeding must be opened in that state, which can be costly and burdensome to an executor. A trust avoids this problem because the trust, not you, owns the property, which passes pursuant to the terms of the trust. A revocable trust also provides a measure of planning should you become incapacitated. In that event, your successor trustee assumes responsibility for the administration of the trust and can manage the property held by it.

Evan Lohr is an estates attorney in Raleigh. He can be reached at evan@lohrnc.com or at (919) 348-9211.