The Texas Young Lawyers Association recently updated a publication they have prepared for many years providing a guide to probate and estate planning in Texas called the Texas Probate Passport. It is an excellent resource and can be found in its entirety here.
I thought it might be useful to reprint portions of it in this blog for those of you who read this and find it useful. This is the first section.
You Can’t Take It With You
Death affects people in many ways. It never is timely. Death confronts the family with bereavement, with the need to readjust emotionally and financially, and often with an unknown future. Death is not only a personal issue but a legal one as well. A death certificate must be issued, and the estate of the deceased individual (the decedent) must pass to others.
An estate consists of the property, both real and personal, which the decedent owns at the time of death. Real property includes land and improvements located on the land. Real property also includes oil, gas, and other mineral interests. Personal property is all property other than real property, including cash and bank accounts, clothing and personal effects, household furnishings, motor vehicles, stocks and bonds, life insurance policies, and government, retirement, or employee benefits.
Upon death, title to the decedent’s property passes immediately to the beneficiaries under the decedent’s will or to the heirs-at-law if the decedent died without a will. However, there must be an actual transfer of ownership of the property by proving the will in court or, if there is no will, by having a court determine who are the decedent’s heirs. The purpose of court involvement is to protect the rights of the family, those entitled to receive property, and the creditors of the decedent’s estate.
Therefore, although title to property passes immediately at death, the assets of the estate are subject to the control of the executor or administrator of the estate for the purpose of settling the debts of, and claims against, the estate. After the payment of debts and claims, the remaining assets are distributed to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs-at-law. If the decedent died with a legally valid will, then his or her property is distributed according to his or her wishes as expressed in the will. On the other hand, if the decedent died without a will or if the will is declared invalid, the estate is distributed to the decedent’s heirs as determined under Texas law. The decedent’s heirs may not be the persons to whom the decedent wished for his or her property to pass.