The sudden death of a loved one is always a tragedy. But when someone with a large estate passes away unexpectedly, that tragedy may be compounded by a lengthy and unpleasant probate process. Such deaths are a poignant reminder of the importance of careful estate planning.
Take for example Hall of Fame boxer Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, who was killed suddenly on July 14 after being struck by a vehicle. Whitaker, who was known almost exclusively by his boxing nickname “Sweet Pea,” won a number of world boxing titles in four different divisions over the course of his career, as well as a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. As a sports celebrity, Whitaker made a fortune from boxing and related endorsements, a fortune that has been estimated close to $5 million at the time of his death.
Thanks to a recent change in estate tax law, Whitaker’s estate will at least avoid the 40% estate tax often levied on the wealthy who, for whatever reason, have not planned carefully for such situations. As of 2019, the estate and gift tax exemption is $11.4 million for individuals and $22.8 for married couples, meaning their heirs will likely pay no federal estate or gift tax. This is good news for Whitaker’s four children and anyone else named as a beneficiary in his will.
But being tax-exempt does not mean that such estates can avoid probate. Without a solid estate plan in place, estates of all sizes may wind up mired in a time-consuming and expensive probate process. Probate is the legal process through which an individual’s assets are transferred to others after his or her death. The good news is that probate usually doesn’t apply to anything owned jointly, since there is a surviving owner to take over. There are also other ways to keep your assets out of probate, such as using a trust.
Without an estate plan, however, the inheritance of things like savings accounts, personal property, and real estate will almost certainly need to be settled by the courts. This can take anywhere from a few months to several years, and cost thousands in legal fees. Court fees, attorney fees, and appraisal and valuation fees often add up to between 2% and 5% of the value of the assets, an unwelcome and unnecessary expense. A contested estate can also tear families apart, further adding to the stress and grief they feel after the death of a loved one.
When done properly, an estate plan can help protect your loved ones from the probate process and ensure that your estate goes to the individuals you choose. A good estate plan will help you avoid taxes, minimize ugly legal battles and family strife, and even name guardians for children or other dependents, if needed.
For these reasons, it’s clear that estate planning isn’t only for millionaires or the uber-rich. Whitaker’s story shows us that no one can predict when a sudden death will occur, but we can still be prepared for what comes next.