Who Has the Title to Your Deed: You May Be Vulnerable to Probate
This case study is a cautionary tale, and unfortunately, we see this kind of situation all too often. It highlights the importance of what is called vesting, or the way in which title to a Deed is held. It seems like a small thing, but a Deed is the legal document that identifies the property owner. Without the title, it is impossible to buy or sell a home. And as our client discovered, she also couldn’t update her Living Trust.
Updating Claire’s trust to reflect the changes in her life
It began when our client, “Claire”, came in to our Walnut Creek office to update her Living Trust. She’d experienced some significant changes since she’d created her Trust more than ten years before. She’d divorced, added a grandchild, lost her daughter to breast cancer and her mother to heart disease, changed jobs so that she was making significantly more money, bought a very promising stock that was soaring, invested in a Tahoe timeshare and purchased a life insurance policy. These were precisely the kinds of life events that should alert people to the need to be updating their Trusts.
We began amending Claire’s Trust to reflect the many changes in her life, but ran into a problem when we got to Claire’s Walnut Creek home. We needed to move the home into the Trust, but it was partially owned by her mother, and mom had died in 2015. Unfortunately, the Deed didn’t state that the owner and her mother were “joint tenants”, which meant that full title didn’t automatically pass to Claire when mom died. The result: 50% of the property would now have to go through Probate to determine ownership.
Probate a growing practice area for us
At California Document Preparers, uncontested Probate is a growing practice area for us, and this is one of the situations we most frequently encounter.
As part of Probate, the Court appoints a personal representative, or administrator, to settle the estate, so we work closely with the administrator throughout the Probate process. Claire became the administrator for the Probate, responsible for the following:
Paying all debts, claims and taxes owed by the estate.
Collecting al rights to income, dividends, etc. and settling disputes.
Distributing or transferring the remaining property to the heirs.
Access to the decedent’s accounts
As an administrator, Claire can access all of the decedent’s records to understand the financial landscape. This may include valuing assets, taking physical custody of assets and selling assets, as necessary, to pay off debts or expenses. In this case, since Claire’s mother had already dealt with those financial assets by beneficiary designations, the only outstanding issue was the Deed to the home.
During Probate, the deceased’s estate becomes a separate tax entity, so Claire had to obtain a federal identification number. She was also responsible for filing the estate’s tax return and a final individual tax return.
Distribution of remaining assets
Once all taxes and debts have been satisfied, the Court distributes any remaining assets according to state law. In California, as in most states, the first priority is given to the deceased’s spouse, followed by the deceased’s children. In this case, the only asset in question is the 50% ownership of the home in which Claire is living. Claire was her mother’s only daughter, so mom’s interest in the house was distributed to Claire.
By vesting the Deed as joint tenants, they would have avoided Probate
If the Claire and her mother had been joint tenants on the Deed to their home, this scenario would have been dramatically simplified and they would have avoided Probate. When we prepare a Deed, we present all the options so clients can make informed decisions about how they wish to hold title—hopefully avoiding an unfortunate situation like this.