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Q: If a joint owner on property dies, how do the other joint owners remove their name? Does the property have to go through probate?  

A: The property does not need to go through probate. One of the benefits of joint ownership with rights of survivorship is that the property belongs to the surviving joint owner(s) upon the death. The ownership transfers to the surviving joint owner(s) regardless to the decedent's estate plan.

As a matter of law, the surviving joint owner(s) receives the decedent's interest at the moment of death. However, the county needs to be notified of the death and title cleared. You do this by recording a surviving joint tenant affidavit. The affidavit provides the information required to successfully remove the decedent's name and clear title for the surviving joint owners.

The affidavit is technical and needs to include certain information to successfully remove the decedent's name and clear title. Because of this, the preparation is best left to an attorney. You may be able to find a sample form on line but remember that this will affect the title to the real estate. If the preparation isn't done correctly, bad things could happen so leave it to a professional.

Q: If a will leaves property to the children, are stepchildren included?

A: It depends on the will. If the will defines the children, it may include stepchildren. If the will fails to define the children or if the definition doesn't include stepchildren, then it's unlikely that they would be included.

Early in my career I encountered a situation where a man's mother died and he was raised by his stepmother from the age of about six. Her biological children scattered but he stayed local and took care of her until she passed away. Her estate plan left all of her property to her children but failed to define the term. The result was he was left out of the distribution. Fortunately, the other children entered into a family settlement agreement so that he would be included in the distribution, but they certainly didn't have too.  

Blended families are the norm these days and although you may not make a distinction between stepchildren and biological children, the law may. The moral of story is clearly identify the relationship of all of your heirs to your attorney so that problems can be avoided.

Christopher W. Yugo is an attorney in Crown Point. Chris’ Estate Planning Article appears online every Sunday at Address questions to Chris in care of The Times, 601 W. 45th Ave., Munster, IN 46321 or to Chris’ information is meant to be general in nature. Specific legal, tax, or insurance questions should be referred to your attorney, accountant, or estate-planning specialist.