December 17, 2010
As a Sacramento probate attorney, I know that the ability to choose and document your desired beneficiaries is a major benefit of doing an estate plan. It often gives people great peace of mind and comfort knowing their assets will be handled in a way they want upon their death.
That’s simply because most people have very clear wishes as to who they want to inherit their property when they pass away. Yet what most people fail to realize is that unless such wishes are documented in writing, your desired beneficiaries may not end up with the property or assets you wanted to leave them after all.
How is that possible?
Well for starters, if you die without having a will that has clear beneficiary designations in place, your estate will automatically go through probate. That essentially means a judge will be assigned to distribute your property directly to your surviving heirs (as defined by the Probate Code) as he or she sees fit. This can be a problem for a number of reasons.
First of all, your “heirs” may not be your desired beneficiaries. It’s important to realize that an heir by definition is not always the same as a beneficiary. Instead, an “heir” by definition is a direct blood family member while a beneficiary can be anyone (meaning family, friends, neighbors, charities, organizations) that you wish to leave your inheritance to. In other words, an heir can be a beneficiary but a beneficiary is not always an heir.
So let’s say you intended to leave some money to your heirs upon your passing, but you also wanted to leave a few specific assets to your favorite charitable organization and a close family friend. Without having this in writing, a judge would have no choice but to leave your assets to heirs if there were no beneficiaries named in their place.
And even if you did want your biological heirs to inherit your entire estate upon your passing, allowing the probate judge to make such determinations is still problematic in that you have no say as to who specifically gets what if something happens to you (e.g., Mary gets the car, Billy gets the house, Sally gets the family heirloom collection).
Finally, it may be the case that you don’t want a certain heir to inherit any of your estate upon your passing. The decision to disinherit an heir can be made for a variety of reasons, but unless you also spell this out in writing, he or she may still have legal claim to the assets you sought to prevent them from getting their hands on.
Therefore, it’s extremely important that you take the time to make your wishes about beneficiaries known in your will or other estate planning documents while you are still alive and well to handle such matters. Remember, you’ve worked hard to acquire everything you own and it only makes sense that you are the one who designates who gets what if something happens to you.
You can get started with the estate planning process by calling our Gold River estate planning and probate office at (916) 241-9661. With the mention of this article, you can come in for one of our comprehensive Peace of Mind Planning Sessions (normally $750) free of charge. However, this offer is limited to 10 appointments per month so call today!