Hawaii has a new law which allows real estate to go to a beneficiary when the owner dies, without having to go to court for probate. This new procedure requires a new kind of deed, called a “Transfer on Death Deed.” Governor Abercrombie signed Act 173, which creates this new law, on June 27, 2011. The law became effective on July 1, 2011. The law is called the Uniform Real Property Transfers on Death Act.

Let me explain how the law in Hawaii works for anyone who doesn’t have a Transfer on Death Deed. If a person dies owning any real estate in her name only, when she dies, there would have to be a probate proceeding in court before the persons named in the will could inherit. Probate usually takes about one year.  Sometimes it takes much longer. In the experience of our law firm, the attorney’s fees for handling a typical probate without complications can run between $3,000 and $6,500.  If the person dies with $100,000 or less, then the court can handle the probate as a “small estate” proceeding without an attorney. Still, the court charges 3% of the value of the property as a fee, and adds court costs and newspaper publication fees, and often takes as long as an attorney handling a probate case. Even if a person dies owning a tiny portion of land worth only a few hundred dollars, a probate or small estate proceeding is required before ownership can pass to the heirs.

Because of the time and expense caused by probate, many people use revocable living trusts to avoid probate. Others add a joint owner to the property to allow the joint owner to inherit without probate. Adding a person as a joint owner creates special problems, because then you are actually giving away half of the property at the time the joint owner is added.

Now, with the new Transfer on Death Deed, it is possible to avoid probate without a revocable trust and without adding a joint owner to the property. A Transfer on Death Deed names a beneficiary who will inherit the property upon death of the current owner.  It is similar to a “pay on death” bank account or credit union account, where upon your death, the money goes to the beneficiary you named. With a Transfer on Death Deed, you still own the property, you can still sell it or mortgage it, and you can change your beneficiary at any time. Yet, if you die, the property goes to your beneficiary without having to go to court for probate. To cancel or change a beneficiary, the legal document showing the change must be recorded in the Bureau of Conveyances in Honolulu before you die.

The Transfer on Death Deed could be a good idea for some people.  However, it does have some problems of which you need to be aware.  If you have or need an A-B Trust to protect assets from estate taxes, you should probably have your real estate in your trust. Having real estate go directly to a beneficiary could mess up the way the A-B Trust is supposed to work to protect assets from estate taxes. If you are old enough to start being concerned about nursing home costs, then I would not recommend a Transfer on Death Deed, because that kind of deed will not protect real estate from nursing home costs.  Instead, I would recommend transferring the property to an irrevocable trust, keeping a life estate in the property. Also, if you would like the property to be protected after your death in case your child gets a divorce or has enough assets to be taxed by the estate tax, I would recommend putting your property into a generation skipping trust, for asset protection.

The Transfer on Death Deed might be appropriate for someone with a small estate who is not concerned about nursing home costs.