Can I Avoid Probate with Joint Ownership?

Short answer: Probably not.

Joint ownership can be a good way to transfer assets seemlessly to your spouse, significant other, or children immediately upon death, if they are titled “with right of survivorship.” However, this will rarely allow you to avoid probate for two reasons:

1. Wills = Probate

Wills are often called “tickets to probate” because if you have a will, you have to probate the will even if you do not have a probate estate. Wills guarantee probate regardless of what you own. If you have less than $20,000 in personal property, there is a mechanism in North Carolina that allows expedited probate – but still, probate nonetheless. It’s impossible to title everything you own, especially all of your clothing and personal property, in a transfer-on-death manner. So, most people will still need a will as a catch-all.

2. What Happens when the Surviving Spouse Dies?

Relying exclusively on a joint ownership plan is thinking very short-term. While it may work, subject to the concerns above, for the first spouse to die – what happens when the second spouse dies? If you’ve relied solely on a transfer-on-death designation to that point, your will is going to catch much more of your estate than you may have originally thought. And, again, wills = probate.

One of the biggest mistakes an individual or couple can make when planning their estate is to only plan for the first death, and not the second or subsequent deaths. Estate planning should at least consider, if not plan for, how your estate will pass to subsequent generations – not just from one spouse to the other.

Unfortunately, unless you use trust-based estate planning, it’s unlikely that you can avoid probate at some point.