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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Which assets does an executor deal with and which are outside of the estate?

This reader has questions about the powers and responsibilities of an executor and trustee, and which assets fall within their control. This information is essential to the estate administration process, so I thought I'd cover it here for all to read.

Here's the question:

"When an estate is probated do all assets fall under the probate or can some things be dealt with before hand such as banks, life insurance and investments and if something needs to be done through probate can we proceed at that time? If the executrix/trustee is not a joint tenant of the house, who is responsible for selling the house? Would it be the joint tenant or the trustee?"

Parts of this question are quite clear to me, though I'm not sure I understand the part about dealing with assets "before hand". I'll get to that, though.

All assets owned solely by the deceased fall into the estate. The two types of property that don't fall into an estate are both mentioned in the reader's question. One type is an asset that is jointly owned by the deceased with someone else. The other type is an asset with a designated beneficiary. These are usually life insurance policies, RRSPs, RRIFs and pensions.

Note that this does not include RESPs, which do not go to the child named in the plan, but stay in the deceased's estate.

If the house was owned by the deceased and a joint tenant, on the death of the deceased the ownership passes to the other joint owner. It would be up to the other owner to arrange for the title to be changed. Please note that where the joint ownership is between generations, such as between a parent and a child, this is THE OPPOSITE. Joint title doesn't automatically go to the child joint owner when the parent dies. The child is deemed in law to be holding the title on trust for the estate, and it's for the executor to deal with.

If the house was not held in joint tenancy but was held just by the deceased alone, it becomes part of the estate and it's the executor's job to sell it or transfer it in accordance with the will. This cannot be done before probate is issued by the court.

I'd like to get into the part about dealing with assets before hand. If the question is whether any of the assets can go out to the beneficiaries before the deceased actually dies, the answer is no. To me that seems starkly obvious but I'm asked the question frequently enough to know that not everyone sees it that way. If the person hasn't died, keep your hands off their assets even if they have named you specifically as beneficiary.

Once the deceased has passed away, the executor should advise any joint owners of the death of the deceased and tell the joint owner it's up to them to change the title. The executor should advise life insurance companies of the death of the deceased, and let the insurance company deal directly with the person named as beneficiary in the policy. The executor should also advise the bank that holds the RRSP or RRIF and let the bank deal directly with the beneficiary who will receive the funds. The executor should co-operate by giving copies of the death certificate etc to allow these other parties to get on with the business at hand. Probate is not required for these transactions.

The deceased certainly can - and should - deal with these assets before death by naming the beneficiaries on the life insurance, RRSP etc. During the estate planning process, joint assets and beneficiary designations are part of the same big picture that includes the will and power of attorney. It all has to fit together.

Anyone with this type of question who lives in Alberta can check out my "Alberta Probate Kit" book, as it covers these topics in much more detail.

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