It’s one of those moments we seem to only see in the movies: a phone call is made or a letter arrives by mail informing someone they are the primary beneficiary of a recently deceased person’s estate. While fictional depictions almost always feature an estranged parent or long lost relative as the benefactor, real-life instances tend to be a bit less dramatic. Be that as it may, the sudden realization you’re the primary beneficiary of a large inheritance – coupled with the recent loss of a loved one – is a lot to deal with all at once.
The unfortunate reality is there are entities which will take advantage of this stressful period in your life in order to rob you of your recent windfall. It’s not uncommon for self-identifying creditors and other so-called interested parties to come out of the woodwork in an attempt to cash in on the distribution of an estate. Whether you want it or not, it’s your job to navigate this process – known as probate – in order to prevent losing out on the full amount that is rightfully yours to inherit.
The first step in this process is to find a good lawyer. They should specialize in probate and be located in the state and county where the decedent lived and the majority of the estate resides. For example, you would want a probate attorney in San Diego if the benefactor was living in Escondido. What’s more, it’s imperative to do your research to ensure the lawyer you select will charge a fair price for their services. This helps to ensure you avoid common mistakes made by those unfamiliar with the probate process without compromising your inheritance.
The next step is to be patient. While those charged with a crime have the right to a speedy trial, those going through the civil court system are promised no such time limits. Depending on the details, a probate case can take months or even years to resolve. This is especially true in situations where a will is contested by interested parties.
It’s important to know that a will is itself not legally binding until cleared through probate. In other words, simply being named the primary beneficiary doesn’t guarantee you will receive the lion’s share of the estate. For instance, if you’re named the primary beneficiary in Great-Uncle Arthur’s will while his children get nothing, you can expect to have the will contested. In California and other states with an omitted heir statute on the books, your first cousins once removed will have a strong case for having the will be revised in their favor or thrown out entirely.
Once all is said and done – assuming you wind up receiving the inheritance as outlined in the last will and testament – the final step is to make the most of your newfound wealth. Find a fiduciary financial advisor and set about setting up college funds and trusts. Or, if the estate is relatively modest in size, simply plunk it into a savings account for a rainy day.
Just don’t forget to pay your inheritance tax!