Probate Court

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As an estate planning attorney, a central goal that I preach is for my clients to avoid probate. Most of my clients associate probate with something akin to the plague and people like bankers, insurance agents, financial advisors, TV hosts and society at large have done a good job educating clients on the simple premise that they should avoid probate at all costs.

But why? Most people would guess the expense. That is certainly a legitimate reason. In Missouri, a probate administration can lead to costs to the court, big expenses being paid to your personal representative (also known as the executor) and, if you want the easy version of probate in Missouri, independent administration, the services of a knowledgeable and experienced probate attorney.

In a recent probate, an approximately $450,000 estate ended up costing about $1,000 in costs to the court for filing fees, inventory fees and various other expenses and approximately $31,000 in fees split equally between the personal representative and attorney .

That’s a lot of money and completely avoidable with estate planning. But to me the underrated reasons to avoid probate are:

1. Time

In Missouri, an estate cannot be closed for at least six months. Best case, therefore, you are looking at a 180 day process. In most cases, you can add at least a couple of months, if not more.  In some cases, the estate won’t be closed for at least a year, sometimes longer. So, not only have you lost a loved one, but now as a beneficiary or heir of an estate you have to wait a long time to get your inheritance!

2. Complexity

I work on probates every day and while I do a great job for my clients I have to say….I don’t like doing them.  St. Charles County has a terrific probate division but many of my probates are in St. Louis County and they are a nightmare to deal with.  Every county has a different set of procedural details that must constantly be adhered to, which is tough because those details seem to change by the month. Probates are comparable to getting your teeth pulled. The smallest details can delay them for days and even weeks.

3. Family Issues

Imagine with your family who would be more than a little bit anxious / conspiratorial about an inheritance owed to them. If someone makes out a will and then dies, unlike on TV, there is generally not a reading of the will. That is largely a Hollywood created fiction. In larger estates with a variety of distant relation family members or different beneficiaries (like people that don’t know each other), it might make sense to have a will reading. So people think that something is being hidden from them when the personal representative and the attorney for the estate don’t just cut them a check. Probates cause family tensions and in families where there is already tension, it can only aggravate things.


Here’s the silver lining: It is easier than ever to avoid probate with a living trust or even without a living trust under some circumstances. All you need to do first is sit down and meet with an estate planning lawyer to find out how. Heck, our office offers a free initial consultation. By the end of that meeting, you’ll know what you need and how much it costs…and how much avoiding probate will save you.

Probate Shortcuts: The Spousal Refusal of Letters…

Probate Shortcuts: The Spousal Refusal of Letters…

Missouri Probate Shortcuts: The Spousal Refusal of Letters…

Missouri law offers several probate shortcuts, depending on the circumstances of the client.  One of the most common and indeed, one of the best shortcuts is the spousal refusal of letters.  

Missouri law offers a probate shortcut for a person who has lost a spouse and discovers that titled property was in only the named of their deceased spouse.  As a recent example, I had a client whose husband sadly passed away.  She found out after he passed that he had a small bank account in his name alone and there was no beneficiary named on the account.  The value of the account was approximately $4,500.00.  

Because this client had no minor children, we were able to utilize a streamlined probate process in Missouri called an Application for Refusal of Letters By Surviving Spouse.  This application is authorized under Missouri Statute Section 473.0090.   

The advantage to this process is the simplicity, how quick it is and the lower costs both to have an attorney handle this for you and to file.

In the above example, our firm obtained the approximate balance on the bank account, the account number, and the details of the surviving spouse, including her full name, address and contact information.  We also obtained the Death Certificate of the husband.  With this information available, we completed the Application for Refusal of Letters by Surviving Spouse on behalf of the widow and received an order awarding the proceeds of the account to the widow within about a week.  The client then took the order to the bank, who cut her a check for the account balance and closed out the account.  

The filing fee was approximately $53.  Our firm’s fee is a flat rate of $375 or 10% of the value of the asset that needs to be probated, whichever is higher.  If the amount is especially small, we will often work out a special price for the client given the circumstances.

This statute was created for the accidental property left only in the name of a later passing spouse, so that the surviving spouse does not have to open a full blown probate, which requires at least six months to open and close, published notice to creditors and an inventory to be filed, along with other filed documents.

One important detail:  Under the operating statute, Section 473.0090, the limit to the amount that can be awarded to the surviving spouse under the spousal refusal of letters process cannot be more than the cost of one year of maintenance of that spouse.  Every county treats this amount differently and has different procedures for proving whether an amount does or does not exceed one year of maintenance.  This is just another reason why it’s best to consult with an experienced probate attorney to have this task completed for you.   St. Charles County has a limit of money that can be passed via this process.  Other counties do not.   My experience has been that smaller counties are more lax about the limit than larger counties.  

The bottomline, however, is that the spousal refusal of letters is one terrific shortcut to an ordinary, time consuming and much more expensive probate in Missouri.  


Missouri Probate Steps: Inventory Filing…

Missouri Probate Steps: Inventory Filing…


This blog article discusses the the Missouri probate step of filing an inventory.

So a person has passed away and either they had a will or did not have a will.  Either way, a probate may need to be opened in the county where the decedent died to determine who is entitled to the assets of the decedent.  This process is called probate.

The first step in probate is someone or several people file an Application for Probate and for Letters Testamentary (if there is a valid will) or for Letters of Administration (if there is no will).  It is these Letters that allow the person to act as the Personal Representative (same as executor) or the Administrator (same as executor but only in situation where there is no will) and to deal with the assets of the probate estate.

The next step is filing an Inventory within 30 days of the Letters being issued.  This process can be tedious because it is here that you are tracking down what the decedent had but what it’s approximately worth.  It’s a complicated process.  Hopefully you have an attorney helping you through it.  As a quick aside, in Missouri you can have a Supervised estate or an Unsupervised estate.  The Unsupervised estate, in the right situation, is the easiest way to get through probate because the court does not directly monitor all of the transactions of the estate.  The catch is you need to hire an attorney in order to be allowed to open an Unsupervised estate.   My advice?  Hire an attorney.

Back to the Inventory process.  This can vary widely by county.  In St. Louis County, the Inventory is checked over by an auditing department and that is primarily due there is much more probate fraud in St. Louis County than just about anywhere in the state.  St. Charles County has a terrific probate department and they are very helpful.  They take more of a hands off approach to Inventories that are filed and will usually call if something is missing or incorrectly filed.  Probate courts in Warren County, Lincoln County and Franklin County tend to have less estates filed and often do not have their own forms.  In such a case, it is usually okay to use the forms found on the St. Louis County website, although it is always best to call ahead.

Before you can even file a document called an Inventory, however, you have to know what is included in the estate.  A bank account in the decedent’s name only with no beneficiary named will be part of the estate and must be included in the inventory.  With the letters in hand, the executor can find out the account numbers and the value.  They should also be receiving account statements by mail or online by this time as well.  If an account has the decedent’s name and someone else’s name, it avoids probate and is owned by the surviving account holder.  If there are beneficiaries named on the account, it will also avoid probate.

This is pretty much the same as with all accounts, including IRAs, 401K, non-qualified investment accounts (i.e. a Scottrade or Edward Jones account) and life insurance.  Missouri allows decedents to transfer property after death to TOD beneficiaries.  Check the title of all vehicles, including cars, boats, motors and trailers.

What about a home?  If a house is titled in the decedent’s name alone then you need to see if a beneficiary deed was recorded prior to their death.  If so, the house will avoid probate and go to the beneficiaries named on the beneficiary deed document.  If not, the house will be part of the probate inventory and an appraisal may be necessary.  Some counties allow the tax assessment figure to suffice.

Finally, personal property, unless of some value and/or titled property does not usually need to be accounted for in the Inventory.  However, and this is a big however, it should ALWAYS be inventoried by the executor to avoid a fight among the beneficiaries / heirs.

In conclusion, the Inventory notifies the court what is included in the estate and notifies the beneficiaries or heirs of the estate as well since they are to receive a copy of the filed Inventory document.  Once the Inventory is filed, the next step is to deal with creditors and the debts of the decedent.  I will discuss this step in a future blog post.


Do I Need An Attorney For Probate In Missouri?

Do I Need An Attorney For Probate In Missouri?

Do I Need An Attorney For Probate In Missouri?

    Yes.  You do need an attorney in Missouri for probate.  Here is why:  First, in order to proceed with an independent probate administration, state law requires it.  Under RSMo. 473.787 (3) (link:, an independent personal representative (executor) shall “secure the advice and services of an attorney” on legal questions arising in connection with matters related to the opening of a probate estate, applying for an the issuance of letters testamentary or administration, preservation of estate assets, the inventory of the probate estate, dealing with creditor claims and their payment or resolution, filing of tax returns, making distribution and the closing of the estate.

So basically Missouri law requires it if you want to proceed independently.  The alternative is to proceed with a supervised probate estate, which is often specifically not called for either under the will of the decedent.   Because the last will and testament controls the actions of the personal representative, often an attorney must be hired.

Secondly, a probate estate should be opened with the assistance and services of a probate attorney because opening, administering and closing an estate is complex.   That’s a practical consideration.  In addition, probate matters can be very emotionally draining for families.  If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know how emotionally charged that situation can be.  If you’re the executor named in the will,  you’re often going to feel a lot of pressure to get things done quickly.  I’ve seen this happen in the closest of families.  Family members often don’t understand that just because there is money in the estate, that money just can’t be immediately divided and checks cuts.

Also, remember, the problem is that you owe a “fiduciary duty to the persons interested in the estate” (i.e. the heirs or beneficiaries).   There is no incentive for you to handle the estate alone and in fact, if you do so and then claim you were not up to the task, you can be held personally liable for any of your errors.   Frankly, a person handling an estate without any knowledge how to do so is already engaging in a breach of their fiduciary duties.

Finally, remember the probate process in Missouri is complicated and requires you to devote time to handle it.  Very few estates are as simple as people believe.  Assets cannot be found, creditor claims pop up that were previously unknown.  Deadlines must be met and the court has little to no mercy on those that claim they aren’t attorneys.  With the help of an attorney, those deadlines can be met and headaches can be avoided.

Your best bet is to work with a probate attorney and let them handle all of the filings.  The best part?  You’ll still be involved in the process and still earn a statutory fee (usually the same amount as the attorney) for serving.

Family of Robin Williams Involved In Estate Litigation

Family of Robin Williams Involved In Estate Litigation


Mr.  Williams hanged himself last year at his home in California.  He apparently had created an estate plan but a dispute has resulted between his wife and his children over the distribution of his personal property (a very common source of disagreement in many estates) and the cash needed by wife to maintain the home which was distributed to her out of the estate.  Given the wealth of the late actor, we can assume the home was large and thus the annual maintenance to keep it up was a number which could be (and is being) disputed between the children and the wife.

Arguably, these details could have been included in the estate plan created by Mr. Williams.  The annual maintenance costs in prior years could have been figured and an estimated figure obtained, assuming higher costs in the future.  Nevertheless, it appears that was not done and now his survivors are fighting it out in court.  This not only wastes time and energy, but creates bad blood among family members, all of whom have undoubtedly been devastated by the loss of their father and husband.

The lesson here is that estate litigation can be avoided with proper and thorough estate planning.  The estate plan here probably just needed to be more specific as to the maintenance costs for the home for the wife.  As the article states, however, the family has already received many differences which is good to hear.  Often estate litigation cases can drag on for years without a resolution and their costs can be staggering.