Why Do I Need A California Estate Plan, And What Should It Include?

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You have worked hard to achieve everything you’ve accomplished. Your legacy is not only tied to the love you have for your family but also to how you’ll provide for them for years to come. Creating a comprehensive and effective estate plan is the best way to protect your heirs and legacy. For most people, regardless of their net worth, a basic level of protection includes four crucial documents:

  • Living trust
  • Pour-over will
  • Advance health care directive
  • Durable power of attorney

Without an estate plan containing these elements, your legacy can be determined by a California probate court and the state’s intestacy laws. We’ll examine these four documents in more detail. But first, let’s address a fundamental question for many people.

Do I Have Enough Assets To Merit A Living Trust?

Let’s answer that question with two questions that I ask potential clients.

  1. Do you own a house?

If the answer is “yes,” you are a prime candidate for a living trust. Even if you have significant debt, this will help you avoid probate and ensure that your house and other assets are distributed according to your wishes.

     2. Do you have minor children?

If you do, a living trust is a safe landing spot for your personal property, which can be held in further trust if you die before your children are able to manage those assets, whether the appropriate age is 18, 21 or 25.

Additionally, a living trust is critical for small business owners. But that is a separate discussion to have with your estate planning attorney.

How Living Trusts Work

For those who own a house or have young children, a living trust is typically the foundation of their estate plan. It is a legal arrangement allowing you as the “grantor” to protect assets during your lifetime and direct how they are distributed after death. You select a trustee to manage the assets for the benefit of your beneficiaries.

You can select yourself as the trustee under a revocable living trust and make changes while alive. Upon your death, the trust becomes irrevocable, and a secondary trustee you’ve selected ensures that your wishes are followed for distributing the proceeds to heirs.

The assets contained in a living trust can include financial accounts, such as bank accounts, stocks and bonds, life insurance policies, cash and even money owed to you. They can also contain real estate and other personal property, such as artwork, antiques, collectibles, jewelry and other items.

Living trusts have many advantages. Perhaps the biggest is that the assets in the trust bypass probate, which allows a smoother and quicker process for distributing assets to your loved ones. This also helps avoid court costs and keeps the details of your estate private. Probate is a public process that can be costly and lengthy due to court delays and disputes by or between heirs.

How Pour-Over Wills Work

Just about everyone has heard about a will. A pour-over will works in conjunction with a living trust. First and foremost, if you have minor children, you can appoint a guardian to raise them according to your wishes if you and the other parent are deceased.

The other primary function is to cover assets not included in your trust, acting as a safety net. You can leave instructions ensuring that assets outside your trust are “poured over” into your trust when you die. Any assets not directed to transfer into the trust must go through probate.

How Advance Health Care Directives Work

Also known as a living will, an advance health care directive contains your wishes for critical medical care if you are injured or otherwise incapacitated and cannot make those decisions yourself. This includes end-of-life care, such as whether to be resuscitated, placed on a breathing machine and whether to donate organs and tissues upon death.

The importance of this document became more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic as thousands of families faced heartbreaking decisions. Planning ahead by creating an advance health care directive not only outlines your wishes but relieves your loved ones from the burden of making those decisions and helps avoid family disagreements over care.

How Durable Powers Of Attorney Work

Much like an advance health care directive covers your medical wishes if you become incapacitated, a durable power of attorney outlines your wishes over day-to-day financial decisions when you cannot make them. You may appoint your spouse, friend, relative or someone else you trust for this crucial role.

Comprehensive Estate Planning Requires Personal Attention

Everyone’s goals and financial situations are different. Finding the right estate plan for you isn’t as simple as checking a few boxes on a form and plugging in a plan according to a chart. Experienced estate planning attorneys understand that each client has unique needs. We also know it’s vital to get all your details right so we can offer the best solutions for your needs. The bottom line is that we’re not drawing up a bunch of papers for you to stick in a drawer. Our mission is to protect your family and your legacy.


The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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