Does a Will Supersede a Pay on Death Account in California Law as to Inheritance Rights?

By Teo Spengler

When people die, their assets must be collected, protected and distributed. In California, probate courts oversee the collection and safeguarding of probate assets and their ultimate distribution to beneficiaries or heirs. But not every asset the deceased owned will pass through probate. Some types of asset ownership provide for the property to directly transfer to another person upon the owner's death; these include payable-on-death bank accounts.

Probate Assets

A will is a legal document in which you direct the distribution of your assets to people or organizations you name in your will as beneficiaries. You can leave all of your holdings to one person or provide for specific gifts. All assets that pass by will in California are called probate assets. These can include real estate, personal property and bank accounts that are titled in your name at your death. Without a valid will, probate assets pass to family members under California's "intestate succession" laws.

Title Ownership

You can take title to property in such a way that it will not become a probate asset upon your death; thus, will not pass to beneficiaries under your will. One familiar example in California is community property. In California, each spouse is entitled by law to one-half of the community property, also known as marital property, earned by the spouses during the marriage. Because of this legal entitlement, you can only give away your 50 percent share of the community property to someone under your will, not the full 100 percent, and any attempt to give more will be held invalid. Similarly, if you own real estate in joint tenancy with the right of survivorship, that property will pass to the other owners upon your death regardless of the provisions of your will. The same is true of a bank account held in the names of two or more people.

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Contract

Other types of assets do not pass through probate because they involve a type of contract that names beneficiaries. Life insurance is such a contract. If you own life insurance, whomever is the named beneficiary will become the legal owner of the proceeds upon your death. The life insurance benefits will neither be probate assets nor pass under your will. Other benefits you can assign contractually before death include retirement benefits, death benefits and trusts. A payable-on-death bank account also falls into this category in California.

Payable-on-Death Account

A payable-on-death account is an inexpensive way of creating a trust and allows you to leave someone cash upon your death without resorting to probate. In California, you can convert almost any bank account into a payable-on-death account by filing forms with the bank designating a beneficiary to receive the funds when you die. This kind of account leaves you total control of the assets. You can change your beneficiary at any time and are free to leave as much or as little money as you like in the account. California courts regularly recognize the validity of payable-on-death accounts and allow them to avoid going through probate.

Will Conflict

Probate laws can appear complex and complicated to those untrained in the law. Individuals doing their own estate planning sometimes confuse probate and non-probate assets. If you attempt to leave an asset under your will that is not a probate asset, the attempt will be ineffective. For example, if you designate your wife as the beneficiary of a payable-on-death account and then attempt to devise the money in the same account to your children under your will, the language in the will will be declared invalid.

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Items That Are Not Part of a Probate Estate in Pennsylvania
 

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The Pros & Cons of Making a Will

A will is a written legal document that describes how you would like to distribute your property after you die. However, there are both pros and cons to making a will and whether drafting a will is beneficial to you may depend on your particular circumstances. In addition, there are other estate planning tools that you can use to handle your property following your death, such as creating a living trust. If you do not have a will or other estate planning document in place upon death, your property will be distributed according to your state’s rules.

Inheritance Rights After a Death

People's inheritance rights vary depending on the estate planning tools used by the decedent, or the person who died. Some estate planning techniques require inheritances to pass through probate courts. Estate planning can also be crafted to avoid probate court. Moreover, some people do not make any estate plans at all. In these situations, state law identifies a decedent's heirs and outlines their inheritance rights.

Can Tenancies by the Entirety Go to Probate if a Spouse Dies?

Some types of property are referred to as non-probate property, meaning they bypass probate entirely. The most common reason for property to bypass the probate process is it automatically becomes the property of a designated individual after the decedent's death. Non-probate property includes life insurance proceeds, payable-on-death accounts, joint tenancies with right of survivorship and tenancies by the entirety.

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