How to Transfer Property Title When Death Occurs

by Maggie Lourdes

There are different ways to transfer a decedent's property. The way a person holds property title determines the steps for its transfer after death. Sometimes a probate court case must be opened to convey a decedent's property. Trusts and joint ownership with survivorship rights can avoid the need for probate. State laws generally control the transfer of a decedent's property. Therefore, required actions can vary in different states.

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Probate Transfers

Many people use wills to transfer their property to named heirs after death. A will appoints an executor who is granted power by a probate judge to carry out the decedent's last wishes. An intestate estate occurs when a decedent left no will or other estate plans in place. A probate judge names an executor to transfer the decedent's property pursuant to state law. Intestate property is generally transferred to a decedent's spouse, children or next closest relatives.

Trust Transfers

Trusts are popular estate planning tools because they avoid probate courts. A trust directs a decedent's property to be transferred to named beneficiaries after the trust maker's death. A trustee has the power to transfer property according to the terms of the trust. A trustee can sign real estate deeds, liquidate financial accounts and distribute the trust's property. Avoiding probate by transferring property to a trust is simple and cost-effective.

Real Estate Joint Tenancies

Real estate title held by a married couple is called a tenancy by the entirety. Unmarried parties can own real estate as joint tenants. Real estate is automatically transferred to surviving joint tenants and spouses when their co-owners die. Generally, a joint tenant or spouse must record a death certificate at the register of deeds in the county in which the property is located. No probate proceedings are required to transfer real estate to a spouse or joint tenant.

Totten Trusts and Financial Accounts

A payable on death (POD) account, also called a Totten trust, names a beneficiary to receive account assets when the account owner dies. A POD account is transferred to the beneficiary when the account holder's death certificate is presented to the financial institution. POD accounts are used by banks as well as investment and brokerage firms. POD accounts are simple to set up — no formal, written trust agreement is required — and they avoid the costs and delays associated with probate courts.