Probate court proceedings (during which a deceased person's assets are transferred to the people who inherit them) can be long, costly, and confusing. It's no wonder so many people take steps to spare their families the hassle. Different states, however, offer different ways to avoid probate. Here are your options in California.
In California, you can make a living trust to avoid probate for virtually any asset you own—real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, and so on. You need to create a trust document (it's similar to a will), naming someone to take over as trustee after your death (called a successor trustee). Then—and this is crucial—you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself as the trustee of the trust. Once all that's done, the property will be controlled by the terms of the trust. At your death, your successor trustee will be able to transfer it to the trust beneficiaries without probate court proceedings.
If you own property jointly with someone else, and this ownership includes the "right of survivorship," then the surviving owner automatically owns the property when the other owner dies. No probate will be necessary to transfer the property, although of course it will take some paperwork to show that title to the property is held solely by the surviving owner.
In California, these forms of joint ownership are available:
In California, you can add a "payable-on-death" (POD) designation to bank accounts such as savings accounts or certificates of deposit. You still control all the money in the account -- your POD beneficiary has no rights to the money, and you can spend it all if you want. At your death, the beneficiary can claim the money directly from the bank without probate court proceedings.
California lets you register stocks and bonds in transfer-on-death (TOD) form. People commonly hold brokerage accounts this way. If you register an account in TOD (also called beneficiary) form, the beneficiary you name will inherit the account automatically at your death. No probate court proceedings will be necessary; the beneficiary will deal directly with the brokerage company to transfer the account.
California allows you to leave real estate with transfer-on-death deeds. These deeds are sometimes called beneficiary deeds. You sign and record the deed now, but it doesn't take effect until your death. You can revoke the deed or sell the property at any time; the beneficiary you name on the deed has no rights until your death. Cal. Probate Code § 5620.
California allows transfer-on-death registration of vehicles. If you register your vehicle this way, the beneficiary you name will automatically inherit the vehicle after your death. No probate court proceeding will be necessary.
Even if you don't do any planning to avoid probate, your estate may qualify for California's simplified "small estate" probate procedures. For more details, see Probate Shortcuts. For more on avoiding probate, see 8 Ways to Avoid Probate, by Mary Randolph (Nolo).
You can also see what a typical California probate proceeding entails.
For more on California probate avoidance, see Every Californian's Guide to Estate Planning, by Liza Hanks.
For more on California estate planning issues, see our section on California Estate Planning.