San Diego Estate Planning Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in PROBATE

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It is always a good idea to make a will. Although the law of intestacy provides for the distribution of your assets if you die without leaving a will, making a will (or trust) allows you to decide who should inherit from your estate. This can be especially important if you are married but have children from a prior marriage. In California, the law of community property can result in those children receiving little or nothing if you fail to leave a will.

Stewart-Williams v. Williams

Here is a recent example from a California Court of Appeal decision. This should not be construed as legal advice or a complete statement of California law on this subject. This is merely a case illustrating how the probate courts deal with community property of a deceased individual who does not have a will.

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Signing a last will and testament is often not a one-time affair. You may in fact execute several wills over the course of your lifetime. While a “last” will usually refers to the document signed most recently before your death, there are occasions when a California probate court may find good cause to admit an earlier will.

Judge Nullifies Will Favoring Stepdaughter Over Biological Children

For example, in a recent case from Los Angeles, a state appeals court upheld a probate judge’s decision to admit a decedent’s next-to-last will over his last will. The probate court found the last will was the product of undue influence but the previous will was not. The court therefore admitted that will to probate over the objections of the decedent’s children.

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Recently a California appeals court faced an unusual situation. A woman wanted to reopen her late husband’s estate nearly 25 years after his death. The widow claimed there was a “clerical error” in the original probate court order that led to the unintentional omission of her children from a prior marriage—that is, her husband’s stepchildren—from inheriting part of his estate.

Under the husband’s will certain property, notably three pieces of real estate, was placed with the wife in trust. As long as the wife remains alive, she receives all of the income from the trust property. Upon her death, according to the will, “the trust estate would be distributed in equal shares to each of decedent’s children then living and each group of issue of a deceased child.”

The wife served as personal representative of her husband’s estate. She apparently did not retain a probate lawyer to assist her. In 1992, she filed a petition to approve the distribution of estate property according to the terms of the will. The final order approved by the probate judge only included the husband’s children as “children” entitled to inherit under the will. But as it turned out, there was language in the will that included the wife’s children, the husband’s stepchildren, as intended beneficiaries of the trust.

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Nearly 60 million Americans receive Social Security benefits. Approximately two-thirds of these recipients are retired workers. According to Social Security, retirement benefits “represent about 39 percent of the income of the elderly.” But what happens to those benefits after the recipient dies? Can your estate continue to receive your Social Security payments?

Retirement Benefits After Death

With respect to retirement benefits, Social Security ends upon your death. Indeed, it is essential to notify Social Security of a recipient’s death as soon as possible. In many cases, a funeral director hired by the family will take care of this duty.

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A trust refers to any agreement where a person—the settlor—transfers certain property to a trustee, who must then administer that property as directed by the trust instrument. In estate planning, a revocable living trust allows the settlor to name herself as trustee during his lifetime and a successor trustee who takes office upon the settlor’s death. The trust is “revocable” in that the settlor may remove some or all of the property from the trust while she is still alive. But once the settlor dies, the trust may become irrevocable and the successor trustee is bound by the settlor’s instructions.

Daughter Not Entitled to Trust Information Prior to Father’s Death

A trust typically names one or more beneficiaries. For example, you might create a revocable living trust naming your children as beneficiaries upon your death. Trust beneficiaries enjoy certain rights under California law. In 2012, the California Supreme Court held that when a living trust names someone other than the settlor as trustee, the beneficiaries could seek a court order demanding an accounting of the trust’s finances for the period when the trust was still revocable—i.e., during the settlor’s lifetime.

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An “estate” does not necessarily include all of a person’s assets. In the context of estate planning, an estate refers to property subject to distribution under a person’s last will and testament—that is to say, their probate estate. This may exclude some or all of a person’s property depending on its type and ownership.

Assets That are Not in Your California Probate Estate

For example, any assets that you jointly own with someone else are not part of your probate estate. This would include a joint bank account or a house you co-own as a joint tenant. Upon your death, the surviving co-owner simply assumes full ownership of the asset. Your probate estate also excludes any life insurance policy or asset payable to someone else upon your death, such as a retirement account. And for purposes of determining your California probate estate, any real property that you own in another state—say a rental property in Arizona—is excluded.

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A power of attorney is a document authorizing someone to act on your behalf with respect to financial and contractual matters. Among other acts, a person holding your power of attorney may sell your house, write checks from your bank account, or access your safe deposit box. A power of attorney is “durable,” meaning it continues in effect until you revoke it. Your death would also terminate any outstanding power of attorney.

Daughter Improperly Delegates Father’s Power of Attorney

There are limits to what a person may do under a power of attorney. Here is one illustration from a recent California appeals court decision. This is only an example and should not be construed as a complete statement of California law on the subject of powers of attorney.

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Estate planning is not just about disposing of what you have now, but also dealing with any unresolved legal claims that may exist at the time of your death. For example, if you have filed a civil lawsuit against someone, that case does not automatically end just because you die. The personal representative of your estate can continue the lawsuit on your behalf.

Survivorship Claims

There are also potential legal claims that may arise due to the circumstances of your death. Two common examples are car accidents and medical malpractice. If a person dies due to the negligence of another, the estate may pursue what is known as a survivorship claim. This allows the estate to seek compensation for its own expenses—the costs of the decedent’s funeral, medical expenses, etc. with the balance of any potential judgment reserved for the beneficiaries named in the decedent’s trust or last will and testament.

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It is an unfortunate reality that many people take advantage of the elderly and the mentally infirm. California has laws to prevent such elder financial abuse. Among other things, the law prohibits “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.” For example, pressuring an elderly woman with dementia to sign a last will and testament naming a particular individual as the sole beneficiary of her estate could be considered elder financial abuse.

Court Rejects Daughter’s Allegations Against Nephew

But just because an elderly person may not be as sharp as they once were, that does not mean he or she is a victim of elder financial abuse. Nor does it necessarily defeat any estate plan the elderly person might have made. A recent California case helps illustrate this point.

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There are many reasons why it is a bad idea to write your own will. For one thing, you may not be familiar with the proper usage of certain legal terms, which can lead you to write something that may be interpreted in a completely different manner by a probate court. A recent California case illustrates how even a single word can spark years of unnecessary litigation after your death.

Heir vs. Beneficiary

This case is only an illustration and is not a definitive statement of California law. This case actually involves two estates—that of a mother and her son. The mother died in 1992. She left a handwritten, four-paragraph will naming her son “as sole heir and executor to manage estate affairs.”