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How to probate when a husband and wife die a year a part

I had a really interesting fact pattern today that I wanted to share. I got the perspective client’s permission to share but, of course, names are changed for privacy. Sadly Gina’s mom, Molly, died in December of 2015 and her dad, Donald, died in December of 2016. A crappy 12 months for Gina we can all agree. They owned a house in Sacramento county.

A very common scenario we see is where the decedent’s home ends up in one spouse’s name alone. This is often done for financing purposes where one spouse has great credit, one spouse has bad credit, one spouse is employed, one spouse is self employed, etc…. Several of those factors were present here. So there is a house in Molly’s name as her “sole and separate property.” That is, Donald actually deeded his interest in the house to Molly as her sole and separate property.

Our goal is to get the house into Gina’s name in the most efficient and cost effective manner possible. Oh ya, I forgot to mention, Gina is an only child.  For simple math let’s say the house is worth $500k with a $250k mortgage.  Let’s assume no other assets of significance to keep this simple.  Gina has options. Let’s discuss them.

OPTION A:

Gina could treat the house as her mom’s separate property. That is what the deed says so that is a very reasonable approach. By doing that there would be a probate for a $500,000 house. At the conclusion of probate, due to the laws of intestacy, Gina would get 1/2 of the property and the other 1/2 would go to dad’s estate. The cost would be roughly $13,000 in attorney fees and roughly $2,000 in court costs for a total of $15,000.

That’s not all though. Then dad’s 1/2 has to be probated.  Let’s assume $250k value so about $8,000 in attorney fees and just under $2,000 in court costs.

Yikes up to $25,000 in probate fees and costs… but that’s not all.  Let’s assume the house appreciated $50,000 from Molly’s death until Donald’s death. Based on the Sacramento real estate market in recent years that is a reasonable guess. That would slightly reduce the cost of the probate by $1,000 (that is the cost of probating a $450,000 house rather than a $500,000 house) but still all in at $24,000.

However, that’s not all… bigger still is 1/2 of that $50,000 gain would not step-up in basis at Donald’s death thus leaving Gina with a tax basis in 1/2 of the property $25,000 less than current value. If we assume 25% between federal and state capital gains tax that’s about $5,000 or $6,000 more.

In summation I think option A would cost Gina about $30,000.

OPTION B:

My preferred plan is option B. Let me explain.  Yes, the deed says “sole and separate property” but does it always mean that?  We have, many times, successfully used a spousal property petition even when the title says that it is separate property. Again, remember, this deed is only in Molly’s name alone due to financing reasons. The reality is it was community property.  Title is just a presumption and that presumption would be easily knocked down.

So we would prepare a spousal property petition (SPP) to transfer the property, 100%, from mom to dad.  Different attorneys charge different amounts for preparing an SPP but let’s just call it $5,000 between attorney fees and court costs as an estimate.

The SPP would move the property 100% to dad’s estate.  We would then probate dad’s $500,000 house. The cost would be about $15,000 for that probate

The total of attorney fees and court costs with option B is thus $20,000.

PLUS Gina gets a FULL STEP UP IN TAX BASIS so will not have a gain on sale and thus avoids about $5,000 or $6,000 in capital gains tax. Gina is the big winner here!

There are always other facts to consider. In this case I asked about creditors and confirmed that Donald was not on Medi-Cal. That is, I don’t want to create a large estate for dad and then have dad’s estate go to creditors.

Please remember that each case can have other unique factors so talk to an attorney before trying this on your own.

-John

 

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