Estate law sets out rules and procedures for the disposition of property owned by someone who dies. In Connecticut, as in all states, different laws apply depending on whether the deceased left a valid will. If so, property passes as described in the terms of that will. If not, it passes to close family members under Connecticut laws on intestate succession. Anyone living in Connecticut or who has family living there should understand the basics of Connecticut estate law, including the estate taxes imposed.
Connecticut Probate Law
Probate is a court-supervised process of transferring property from the estate of a decedent to their beneficiaries under a will or to their legal heirs if there is no will. The Connecticut probate process can seem lengthy and complex to those unfamiliar with handling these legal proceedings. Generally, probate in Connecticut is filed in the probate court in the county where the deceased person lived at the time of death.
A probate case is usually opened by the executor named in the will, if there is one, but any beneficiary or heir can also open probate in Connecticut. If there is a will, the will is filed in probate court, and the assets of the deceased are dispersed with court approval according to the terms of the will after debts and taxes are paid. If the deceased didn’t leave a will, or if they left a will that is not valid, then Connecticut's intestate succession laws come into play to determine the person's legal heirs.
Estate Planning to Avoid Probate With a Living Trust
Since probate can be time-consuming and expensive, some ways of avoiding probate have become popular. Connecticut law permits the use of a variety of procedures where a person can transfer property to beneficiaries at their death without going through probate. When someone uses these methods, the property at issue is termed non-probate and passes directly to the named beneficiary outside of a court proceeding.
One method of creating non-probate property involves the creation of a living trust. Under this type of arrangement, an individual sets up a trust and transfers property into it. They are termed the grantor and often name themselves as the initial trustee and beneficiary, retaining the right to change the trust and add or delete assets during their lifetime. These are called revocable living trusts. The assets in the living trust pass automatically to the successor beneficiaries on the grantor's death, completely outside of Connecticut probate rules.
Other Non-Probate Property
Other assets in Connecticut can also pass to designated beneficiaries outside probate and, by doing so, lower the probate estate. Accounts with named beneficiaries are one example. Some bank accounts, retirement accounts and life insurance policy proceeds allow the owner to name beneficiaries who automatically become the new owners of the accounts when the current owner dies. These arrangements keep the account assets out of probate and pass them directly to the beneficiary when the original owner dies.
Connecticut allows residents to add transfer-on-death designations to their vehicle registration. This means that title to a car or truck or other vehicle will pass directly to the transfer-on-death beneficiary and stay outside of probate. Likewise, when Connecticut residents hold title to real property with rights of survivorship, the property transfers directly to the survivor upon the other person's death. This real estate never appears as an asset in the probate proceeding.
It may be helpful for a person to use some of these methods to reduce their probate estate, even if they are not able to put all assets into non-probate property. If a person dies without real estate and the total value of their probate assets in Connecticut is $40,000 or less, the probate procedure becomes much less complex. The person's heirs need only file an affidavit to transfer the property and can avoid paying an executor.
Valid Wills in Connecticut
Any Connecticut resident who is 18 years old or older can create a will as long as they are "of sound mind.” The person making a will is called a testator and, with a few limitations, can leave their property to anyone or any entity they choose. In order to be valid and enforceable in the state, a will must be in writing, signed by the testator, and also signed by two adult witnesses in the presence of the testator.
Are oral wills valid in Connecticut? They are not. Handwritten wills, also called holographic wills, are valid in some states as long as they are signed and dated by the testator, but this is not the case in Connecticut. A handwritten will must still be signed by two adult witnesses to be valid.
Spouses as Beneficiaries
While a person making a will is free to leave their property to whomever they like generally, and Connecticut probate courts allow these bequests, special laws apply to spouses. First, one spouse is not permitted to disinherit the other spouse by writing them out of their will. Or, more accurately, Connecticut law gives a surviving spouse what is termed the "elective share," which allows them to reject the terms of the will.
An elective share in Connecticut works like this: When an individual dies, and their will leaves all of their assets to others and nothing or very little to their surviving spouse, that spouse can reject the terms of the will and instead, claim their elective share. This is also called a statutory share of the estate. That share is one-third of the deceased's probate estate calculated after taxes and debts are paid, as well as the costs of administering the estate. The spouse gets this amount as a life estate but it reverts back to the will beneficiaries on their death.
There is also a rule in Connecticut that automatically disinherits a former spouse. A bequest made in a will to a spouse will be automatically invalidated if the will was made during the marriage but the spouses have finalized a divorce before the testator's death. Any assets left to the now ex-spouse in the will are divided among the other beneficiaries. However, if the spouses legally separate but remain married, such a bequest remains valid.
Naming an Executor
Leaving a valid will lets the testator decide who is going to get their property. Another good reason to make a will is to appoint an executor. An executor is the person in charge of the probate case, and it is their job to steer the estate through probate as smoothly as possible. Generally people name friends or family members they trust to this important job, but, with complex estates, an attorney or an accountant may be a better choice for this post.
If a will is valid but it does not name an executor, the court appoints an executor in Connecticut. This can be one of the beneficiaries of the estate, but the court has discretion to appoint a professional if it believes that is merited. An executor get reasonable fees for their services, with what is reasonable determined by the court.
Laws of Intestacy When Dying Without a Will
While some people resist drawing up a will, anyone dying without a will leaves it up to state law to determine who inherits their property. Dying without a will in Connecticut is termed dying "intestate," and intestate succession laws determine who inherits the property. The heirs are always close family members, and exactly who will inherit depends on which family members survive the deceased. Note that anyone who is found to have murdered the deceased family member will not be allowed to take anything under Colorado's intestate succession laws.
Surviving Spouse and No Descendants
There are various scenarios. For example, if a person dies intestate in Connecticut leaving a surviving spouse but no surviving parents nor descendants, the surviving spouse takes the entire estate. Descendants under Connecticut estate laws means not just children, but, if a child is dead, that child's children or grandchildren. Only when a child dies before the testator do their children inherit.
"Surviving child" in Connecticut means natural children as well as adopted children and children of the testator born after the testator's death. Foster children or natural children given up for adoption do not inherit under Connecticut's intestate succession laws.
Surviving Spouse and Children
If the decedent leaves a surviving spouse plus one or more surviving children, the spouse gets the first $100,000 and 50 percent of the rest of the probate estate, while the remaining half is split among the descendants. This is only true if the surviving spouse is the parent or grandparent of the descendants. If the children are from another relationship, the surviving spouse gets half of the estate and the descendants get the other half. If the testator dies with a surviving spouse and surviving parents, the spouse takes the first $100,000 plus 75 percent of the rest of the estate and the remaining 25 percent goes to the parents.
What if There Is No Spouse?
If a person dies without a surviving spouse, their children or the children's descendants, inherit everything. If the deceased has neither surviving spouse nor descendants, their parents take the entire probate estate. Absent spouse, descendants and parents, any siblings and more distant relatives inherit. If there are no living family members, the state of Connecticut takes the property.
Connecticut Estate Taxes
Not every state imposes an estate tax. In fact, only 12 states do, and Connecticut is one. The Connecticut estate tax is progressive, with higher rates for larger estates. The tax rate starts at 7.8 percent but can go as high as 12 percent.
On the other hand, the state's estate tax has a hefty estate tax exemption in the amount of $5.1 million. That is, the state only imposes the estate tax if the value of a decedent's estate is over $5.1 million, which excludes more than a few estates. The value of the estate is not limited to the probate estate value, but takes into account non-probate assets as well. The state caps estate tax liability at $15 million, if that is any consolation.
Determining How Much Tax Is Due
The state tax can be imposed only if the decedent was domiciled in Connecticut when they died or if they owned real or tangible property in Connecticut. It is presumed that a person was domiciled in Connecticut if they die in the state, but this can be challenged by filing a request for a determination of domicile with the Commissioner of Revenue Services.
Calculating the value of the assets of the estate for tax purposes is not easy. Figuring out how much tax is due is also a complicated matter. Will executors often bring in accountants or other tax professionals to help determine the estate taxation amounts.
- Nolo: Intestate Succession in Connecticut
- FindLaw: Connecticut Wills Laws
- Probate Advance: How Probate Laws Work in Connecticut
- FindLaw: Connecticut Estate Planning Laws
- Connecticut Law: Rights of Surviving Spouse Connecticut Judicial Branch
- Estate CPA: Connecticut Estate Tax Guide [Updated for 2021]
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.