Does a Will Cover Everything I Own?
No. Generally speaking, your will affects only those assets that are titled in your name at your death. Those assets that are not affected by your will include Life insurance. The cash proceeds from an insurance policy on your life are paid to whomever you have designated as beneficiary of the policy in a form filed with the insurance company—no matter who the beneficiaries under your will may be.
- Retirement plans. Assets held in retirement plans, such as a 401(k) or an IRA, are transferred to whomever you have named as beneficiary in the plan documents—no matter who the beneficiaries under your will may be.
- Assets owned as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. Assets such as real estate, automobiles, bank accounts and stock accounts that are held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship will pass to the surviving joint tenant upon your death, and not in accordance with any directions in your will.
- “Transfer on death” or “pay on death.” Certain securities and brokerage accounts include a designation of one or more beneficiaries to receive the assets in that account when the account owner dies. The names of the beneficiaries are preceded by the words “transfer on death” or “TOD.” Other assets, such as bank accounts and U.S. savings bonds, may be held in a similar form using the owner’s name and the beneficiaries’ names preceded by the words “paid on death” or “POD.”
- “Community property with right of survivorship.” Married couples or registered domestic partners may hold title to their community property assets in their names as “community property with right of survivorship.” Then, when the first spouse or domestic partner dies, the assets pass directly to the surviving spouse or partner without being affected by the will.
- Living trusts. Generally, assets held in a revocable living trust are distributed according to the instructions in the trust regardless of the instructions in your will—with no need for court supervision. You can name yourself as the initial trustee of your living trust (most people do), and then name a successor trustee to manage the trust if you become unable to do so. With a living trust, your assets are managed for your benefit during your lifetime and then transferred to your beneficiaries when you die without court supervision. For more detailed information, see the State Bar pamphlet entitled Do I Need a Living Trust? (See #1 for information on ordering pamphlets.)
- Your spouse’s or domestic partner’s half of community property. In California, any assets acquired by you and your spouse or registered domestic partner from earnings during your marriage or registered domestic partnership are community property. You and your spouse or registered domestic partner own equal shares of those assets. Your will, therefore, affects only your half of the community property. Assets that either of you owned before your marriage or registered domestic partnership, and gifts or inheritances acquired later, are usually separate property. Your will affects all of your separate property assets.
Even if your entire estate consists of assets held in joint tenancy, a life insurance policy and a retirement plan, there are still good reasons for making a will. For example, if the other joint tenant dies before you do, then the property held in joint tenancy will be in your name alone and subject to your will. If named beneficiaries die before you do, the assets subject to a beneficiary designation may be payable to your estate. If you receive an unexpected bonus, prize, refund or inheritance, it would be subject to your will. And if you have minor children, nominating a guardian for them in your will is very important.
Source of this information is the California State Bar Association (www.CalBar.org). This is for information only about California law and is not the providing of legal services. If you have questions about your own situation and what is covered by your will, you should contact an experienced estate planning attorney.