The Foundation – Part 2: Probate Avoidance

Continuing with Part 2 of this three part series, I am going to briefly cover some of the most popular probate avoidance strategies. As a refresher, the purpose of this series is to cover the fundamentals and foundation of estate planning and some of what I typically go through with a client during an initial estate planning consultation, including the following topics:

Part 1 – Last Wills & Testaments and Powers of Attorney
Part 2 – Basic Probate Avoidance Strategies
Part 3 – Joint Revocable Living Trusts

For purposes of this post, it is extremely important to remember that if any of the following probate avoidance measures are used with respect to any of your assets, the distribution of those assets upon your death will NO LONGER be controlled by your Last Will & Testament. The designation or form you used to avoid probate will now control the distribution of that asset upon your death. This is one of many reasons why it is important to talk to an experienced professional when drafting your estate plan; the experienced professional can work with you to ensure that your entire estate plan (i.e., your Will, your beneficiary designations, etc.) works together to achieve your desired goals and results.

Example: The “Average” Estate

A significant portion of most individuals’ estates are made up of the following assets: a house, bank accounts, retirement/brokerage accounts, life insurance, an automobile and tangible personal property (e.g., your household furnishings, antiques, collectibles, etc.). By implementing a few of the probate avoidance strategies below, most individuals will have the peace of mind in knowing that a significant portion of their estate, if not all of it, will avoid probate.

And, even if not all of the assets avoid probate (e.g., like the car and the tangible personal property), if those remaining probate assets are below a certain threshold amount, your State may still provide a way to transfer those assets without the need for probate after your death (e.g., in Wisconsin, if you probate assets are under $50,000, they can be transferred by affidavit and probate can be avoided). This should be a goal for almost all estate plans – to at least have the value of your probate assets below the probate threshold amount in your State.

Joint Ownership

Generally, any assets held and titled as joint ownership property pass to the survivor of the joint owners outside of probate. Common assets that can be held jointly include bank accounts and real estate. However, keep in mind that the asset will pass fully to the survivor, even if you wish it to go to someone else.

Beneficiary Designations

Any assets where you can and do designate a beneficiary will pass to the beneficiary outside of probate. Common assets where beneficiary designations are used include retirement accounts (e.g., pension plans, 401(k)s, IRAs), life insurance policies and brokerage accounts. If you wish to designate a beneficiary to any of these types of accounts, you can do so by requesting a beneficiary change form from your account administrator.

Payable on Death Accounts

Similar to beneficiary designations, payable on death accounts allow you to designate a beneficiary of that particular account. If such a beneficiary is designated, that account will pass to the beneficiary outside of probate upon your death. Payable on death accounts are particularly useful when it comes to your bank accounts. Most banks (if not all) will allow you to name a beneficiary to your bank account, you just need to speak to your banker.

Transfer on Death Designations

Again, similar to beneficiary designations, transfer on death designations are used to pass interests in property upon your death to a named beneficiary without the need for probate. The most common use of transfer on death designations are for real estate and business interests. This type of probate avoidance strategy will usually involve seeing an attorney to draft the transfer on death designation.

Marital Property Agreements (with Washington Will provisions)

For married couples in some States, marital property agreements with Washington Will provisions can be used to pass all of the decedent spouse’s property to the surviving spouse upon the death of the first spouse without the need for probate. If otherwise consistent with your estate plan, this can make the time and expenses involved at the first spouse’s death much easier to cope with. However, only some States allow for this type of probate avoidance strategy. This will also require you to see an attorney to draft the agreement.


Any assets held in trust will also pass to (or be held for) the beneficiary of the trust without the need for probate. Generally, almost any asset can be held in trust; thus, this can provide a lot of flexibility and the most overall probate avoidance. Additionally, this will also require an attorney to draft the trust agreement. In Part 3 of this series I will focus solely on trusts so be sure to check that out once I post it.

Recap: The “Average” Estate

Above I stated that a significant portion of most individuals’ estates are made up of the following assets: a house, bank accounts, retirement/brokerage accounts, life insurance, an automobile and tangible personal property. The following is a recap of the probate avoidance strategies that can be used to pass those assets to your heirs without the need for probate:

  • House – joint ownership, transfer on death designations, and trusts.
  • Bank accounts – joint ownership, payable on death accounts, and trusts.
  • Retirement/brokerage accounts – joint ownership, beneficiary designations, and trusts.
  • Life insurance – beneficiary designations and trusts.
  • Automobile and tangible personal property – joint ownership and trusts.


As you can see, there are multiple ways to avoid probate in regards to a particular asset and among your entire estate. The strategy and combination of strategies chosen will be different for every individual; some strategies may provide more advantages than other strategies depending on your individual circumstances. Additionally, many of the above probate avoidance strategies can be achieved for relatively little cost and time while saving your estate and your heirs A LOT of time and expense after you pass.

However, like I stated in Part 1, any plan starts with a good and solid foundation, and that includes your estate plan. That means that even if you engage in the above probate avoidance strategies, you still need to have a Last Will & Testament to “catch” those assets that you may have missed or that could have fallen outside the probate avoidance measures you took. Probate avoidance strategies must be integrated into an already existing solid estate plan; otherwise, the benefits and advantages such strategies provide will be diminished.

Make sure to check out Part 3 (Trusts) of this series when I post it. And, lastly, like with any topic I blog about, I am only scratching the surface of these topics, you must contact a professional in order to fully consider how these estate planning strategies will play out in your individual circumstances.

I hope this helps!



© 2015 Matthew D. Brehmer and Crummey Estate Plan.


  1. Great Article. Thanks for the info, super helpful. Does anyone know where I can find a blank “beneficiary designation form” to fill out?


    1. You can request them right from the account holder / administrator (i.e., if you need one for your life insurance policy, contact your insurance agent; if you need one for your IRA, contact the company holding your IRA).


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