If you die without an estate plan in place, a California probate judge will determine what happens to all your assets, even if you had a particular person or people in mind to inherit them. The estate planning process enables you to retain control over who gets what, as well as other important issues, such as your own health or finances. It’s wise to execute an estate plan and to include the most basic legal document in the portfolio: a last will and testament.
A last will and testament is a public document. However, no two people have the same will, although most wills contain five common elements. The most important aspect of crafting a will is to make sure you adhere to state laws, so that it is valid and legally enforceable.
Basic overview of a last will and testament
The overall structure of a last will and testament typically includes these five elements:
- A declaration statement: This is a written statement declaring that the document is your official last will and testament and that any other wills you might have previously signed are null and void.
- A list of beneficiaries: This list contains the names of anyone to whom you wish to bequeath an inheritance. It might be one person or multiple people or groups.
- Designation of executor: In this part of your will, you name the person whom you wish to manage your estate, including gathering assets, notifying beneficiaries, closing bank accounts and more.
- Name guardians for your children: If you have minor children, your last will and testament may include the names of guardians who will take custody of your children when you die.
- Signatures: If you don’t sign your will, it is not valid. Two witnesses must watch you sign your will and then sign it, as well, to attest that they saw you sign it and were not under duress at the time.
If you co-own an asset with another person, you cannot bequeath it to someone in your will. You cannot add contingencies referring to certain issues, such as religion or marriage and divorce, meaning that you require a beneficiary to denounce a faith or get married or divorced to inherit something.
Making additions or deletions to your will
As long as you can demonstrate testamentary capacity, which means you’re of sound mind and understand the implications of signing a will or codicil (addendum to a will), you can update your document, as needed. It’s advisable to periodically review your estate plan to ensure it is up to date. This helps your executor and beneficiaries avoid legal complications.