Last Wills & Testaments in California

By Beverly Bird

A California last will and testament affects only property that does not pass directly to a selected beneficiary when you die, such as life insurance proceeds and real estate owned with a partner with rights of survivorship. California law also allows you to transfer bank accounts, brokerage accounts and savings bonds directly to a partner by naming “pay on death” or “transfer on death” beneficiaries on the accounts. California recognizes registered domestic partnerships, and estate laws that apply to spouses also apply to domestic partners.


California is a community property state, so you can only bequeath in your will half of any assets you accumulated during your marriage. However, you can bequeath all property you acquired by way of gift or inheritance, or property acquired before marriage.

Acceptable Formats

California recognizes three formats for wills: one done by an attorney, a “do it yourself” form you can download from the State Bar website, or a handwritten or holographic will. A holographic will must be completely in your own handwriting, legible, signed and dated. California also accepts wills from other states provided they meet the laws of the state they came from. Oral, or nuncupative, wills and video wills are not legal in California.

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Estate Debts

When a will passes through probate, any debts you owed at the time of your death are paid out of your estate. Smaller estates, where the total value of property does not exceed $100,000, do not require the executor to give direct notice to creditors. But creditors can demand payment after 40 days have passed since your death, by filing a small estate affidavit with the probate court, or a sworn statement declaring that you owed them money.

Intestacy Laws

If you die intestate in California, or without a will, all your separate property transfers to your spouse or registered domestic partner if you have no children, living parents, living siblings or living nieces and nephews. Otherwise, half goes to your partner, and half goes to your child or her descendants. If you have no children, the other half goes to your parents, and if they are not living, to your siblings. If they are not living, the other half goes to your nieces or nephews. However, if your domestic partnership is not registered with the state, your partner does not receive anything.

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