People in California know that a will is probably the single most important estate planning document that every person should have. That being said, there are certain kinds of property that a will simply cannot cover for various reasons. For that reason it’s important to know the limitations of a will, and what other supplemental estate documents a person may need to work with their attorney to draw up or amend.
While most property that is solely owned by a person can be distributed according to the terms of the will, things like pensions and retirement accounts are not generally controlled by the will, but rather by the terms of those financial instruments. Retirement accounts require a person to name a beneficiary, who will receive the distribution of the account assets if the owner is deceased. The same thing goes for life insurance policies, which have a named beneficiary and are distributed according to the terms of the policy. It’s important to update the named beneficiary on such financial accounts, especially after a significant life event like the death of a beneficiary or a divorce. Even if the will names a different beneficiary of these items, it is more likely that the beneficiary named in the policy, pension or account will control.
Another major issue is whether things that are owned jointly can be controlled by the will. After all, you can’t give away what you don’t own. In some cases, a person owns only a share of a piece of property, for example a piece of real estate, in joint tenancy with another person. If that person has the right of survivorship, the property transfers in full from the deceased to the other joint tenant.
Perhaps most importantly, community property of the marriage belongs to both spouses equally, so people need to consider whether the property they have obtained during the course of the marriage truly belongs to them, or if their spouse is actually the owner of half.
It’s important to keep these things in mind when drafting a will for the first time or amending it later on. An experienced California estates and trusts attorney can answer people’s questions about wills and other estate documents in greater detail.
Source: State Bar of California “Do I Need a Will?,” accessed Nov. 1, 2014