Paula A. Clarkson
Estate Planning Attorney
Paula Clarkson, partner and head of the firm’s Estate Planning Department, practices primarily in the areas of estate planning, probate, trust administration, guardianships, and conservatorships. She has practiced exclusively in the estate planning area for over 20 years and has been designated as Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Probate, and Trust Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Read more about What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Really Do?
There are many legal strategies involved in estate planning, including wills, revocable living trusts, irrevocable trusts, durable powers of attorney, and health care documents. New clients often say that they do not have an estate plan. Most people are surprised to learn that they actually do have a plan. In the absence of legal planning otherwise, their estate will be distributed after death according to California’s laws of intestacy. Of course, this may not be the plan they would have chosen. A properly drafted estate plan will replace the terms of the State’s estate plan with your own.
Estate Planning Services:
Your Last Will and Testament
Your last will and testament is just one part of a comprehensive estate plan. If a person dies without a Will they are said to have died “intestate” and state laws will determine how and to whom the person’s assets will be distributed. Some things you should know about wills:
- A will has no legal authority until after death. So, a will does not help manage a person’s affairs when they are incapacitated, whether by illness or injury.
- A will does not help an estate avoid probate. A will is the legal document submitted to the probate court, so it is basically an “admission ticket” to probate.
- A will is a good place to nominate the guardians (or back-up parents) of your minor children if they are orphaned. All parents of minor children should document their choice of guardians. If you leave this to chance, you could be setting up a family battle royal, and your children could end up with the wrong guardians.
Trusts: Revocable Living Trusts, Irrevocable Trusts, Testamentary Trusts, Special Needs Trusts, etc.
Trusts come in many “flavors,” they can be simple or complex, and serve a variety of legal, personal, investment or tax planning purposes. At the most basic level, a trust is a legal entity with at least three parties involved: the trust-maker, the trustee (trust manager), and the trust beneficiary. Oftentimes, all three parties are represented by one person or a married couple. In the case of a revocable living trust, for example, a person may create a trust (the trust-maker) and name themselves the current trustees (trust managers) who manage the trust assets for their own benefit (trust beneficiary).
Depending on the situation, there may be many advantages to establishing a trust, including avoiding probate court. In most cases, assets owned in a revocable living trust will pass to the trust beneficiaries (or heirs) immediately upon the death of the trust-maker(s) with no probate required. Certain trusts also may result in tax advantages both for the trust-maker and the beneficiary. Or they may be used to protect property from creditors, or simply to provide for someone else to manage and invest property for the trust-maker(s) and the named beneficiaries. If well drafted, another advantage of trusts is their continuing effectiveness even if the trust-maker dies or becomes incapacitated.
Powers of Attorney
A power of attorney is a legal document giving another person (the attorney-in-fact) the legal right (powers) to do certain things for you. What those powers are depends on the terms of the document. A power of attorney may be very broad or very limited and specific. All powers of attorney terminate upon the death of the maker, and may terminate when the maker (principal) becomes incapacitated (unable to make or communicate decisions). When the intent is to designate a back-up decision-maker in the event of incapacity, then a durable power of attorney should be used. Durable Powers of Attorney should be frequently updated because banks and other financial institutions may hesitate to honor a power of attorney that is more than a year old.
Health Care Documents (or Advance Directives)
An advance directive is a document that specifies the type of medical and personal care you would want should you lose the ability to make and communicate your own decisions. Anyone over the age of 18 may execute an advance directive, and this document is legally binding in California. Your advance directive can specify who will make and communicate decisions for you, and it can set out the circumstances under which you would not like your life to be prolonged if, for example, you were in a coma with no reasonable chance of recovery.
A document that goes hand-in-hand with your advance directive is an authorization to your medical providers to allow specified individuals to access your medical information. Without this authorization, your doctor may refuse to communicate with your hand-picked decision maker.
Probate and Estate Administration Services:
Probate and estate administration are the processes through which estate assets are transferred after death. When probate avoidance planning has not been implemented prior to death, the state will require a probate court proceeding if the deceased was a resident or owned assets in the state exceeding $150,000. Probate can be supervised or unsupervised. In an unsupervised probate, the appointed estate administrator manages assets, pays any debts, files required tax returns and various court documents, and distributes the estate assets. However, the court may at any time require the process to be supervised (usually when someone expresses concern about the estate administration). In a supervised probate, the probate judge must approve every detail of the estate administration.
Because probate can be a lengthy, costly, and public process, many people choose to avoid it. There are a number of legal strategies that will allow you to pass property to another person after death, without going through probate.
- Joint Tenancy Adding another person to your assets as a joint owner or “joint tenant with rights of survivorship” will allow your property to pass to them upon your death without going through probate. There are pitfalls to this strategy, however, to include subjecting such assets to any claims (such as lawsuits) against the co-owner and making them available to the co-owner’s creditors — all while you are still alive and planning on using the assets yourself.
- Beneficiary Designations. California allows Transfer on Death (TOD) or Pay on Death (POD) beneficiary designations to be added to bank accounts. Beneficiary designations like these are preferable to joint tenancy in that they allow you to transfer property only upon your death without giving away current ownership. One of the drawbacks, however, is that it can be difficult to obtain an equitable distribution of property among your heirs by utilizing beneficiary designations. Additionally, understand that if you have beneficiaries listed on your assets, those assets will be distributed upon your death to the listed beneficiaries, even if your last will and testament states otherwise.
- Revocable Living Trust. A Revocable Living Trust is a legal document that allows you to establish a separate entity (the trust) to “hold” legal title to your assets while you are alive, and to name trustees to manage those assets according to the trust terms. Typically, you serve as the trustee while you are alive, managing your assets for your own benefit. Upon your disability or death, the trust terms appoint your successor trustee who then continues to manage — or distribute — the assets held in trust. A properly drafted trust can accomplish many goals, including guardianship and probate avoidance for your estate and bloodline, marital and creditor protection for your children.
California Estate and Trust Administration
A properly drafted and funded trust will generally avoid probate. The trust need not be filed with the probate court. Nonetheless, there are still steps necessary to administer the trust: beneficiaries must be contacted; assets must be gathered, valued and managed; potential creditors must be notified; debts, taxes and final expenses must be paid; and, ultimately, any remaining income and assets must be distributed in compliance with the trust terms. Successor trustees often lack the time, resources or knowledge to personally administer the trust, and therefore may call upon legal, accounting and investment professionals for assistance. Oftentimes, a corporate fiduciary (e.g., a trust company) is an excellent alternative to relying solely on busy family members or friends to serve as trustee. We can help your successor trustee(s) deal with the complexities of administering your trust. Please call our office and we will be happy to schedule a consultation, whether or not our office has drafted the original trust.