By Attorney Jeanne Kangas
We work throughout our lives to enlarge our estate, expecting that we will be able to leave an estate to our children and chosen heirs. However, too often we fail to take steps necessary to preserve our wealth; and those to whom we want to leave our estate are left to deal with the Massachusetts probate system. Fortunately Massachusetts law regarding the probate of estates has been simplified over the last few years; but there are still some steps you should take to ensure your assets are divided up per your wishes and avoid getting entangled in the probate system.
Your retirement accounts
Most financial institutions require retirement account owners to specify a beneficiary when they open their accounts. Check now to see who you named as a beneficiary or beneficiaries; and remember to check again to verify or change the beneficiary after a divorce, death of a spouse and other life changes.
Other financial assets
There are a number of ways to ensure your assets are distributed as you wish while you are still able to take steps, including:
- Stocks/bonds/mutual funds. There are two options for transferring these assets to a chosen heir upon your death. One option is to jointly register assets using joint tenants with rights of survivorship, so that the ownership automatically transfers upon your death. A second option is to use what is known as a “transfer on death” designation, so that the person you designate will provide a copy of your death certificate and a letter of instruction for the new registration in that person’s name.
- Real estate. When you put real estate in your and another person’s names (joint names) with the right of survivorship, the other person automatically gets full ownership in the event of your death. If the names are as joint tenants, then your ‘half’ is in your estate, and the other ‘half’ belongs to the other person. There are several other options, including putting the real estate into a Trust that designates the disposition of it.
- Personal belongings. Items such as jewelry, art, automobiles and the like, termed tangible personalty, can be left by listing them and the recipient(s) in a will; and if you name a responsible and trusted personal representative in the will, you could leave a memorandum that states and lists the items, with instruction that your personal representative adhere to it. Either way, it can prevent squabbling between family members and other loved ones.
Most of us have very specific ideas about how we would like to see our assets and possessions dealt with when we pass away. It is imperative to speak with an attorney who understands Massachusetts probate law to help you with your estate planning. This will allow you to have the final say as to the disposition of your assets.