A Basic Introduction to California Estate Planning

Everyone should understand what estate planning is and what it can do for an individual and family.

Every Californian should speak with an experienced attorney about the ways in which estate planning could be advantageous and important in the person's individual circumstances, no matter how much money the person makes or what the nature and extent of that individual's property is. Broadly, estate planning deals potentially with these important issues:

  • Transferring money and property at death and during life to family members and other important persons, or to business holdings, trusts or charities
  • Minimizing related tax obligations
  • Providing and caring for vulnerable family members, including seniors, those with disabilities and minor children
  • Planning for financial and health care decisions in case of future incapacity
  • Avoiding the need for probate, meaning the court process required to carry out a will's instructions or transfer property not otherwise disposed of by the person who has passed away

In essence, appropriate estate planning allows a person to see that his or her loved ones are provided for; that property and money go to the recipients of choice; and that in case of temporary or permanent incapacity or regarding end-of-life decisions, the person has empowered the individual of choice with the power to make the decisions the person would want and given doctors specific instructions regarding medical care.

Basic Estate Planning Documents

Three legal documents are often the first considered in a basic estate plan:

  • Will: A will directs who will receive the testator's (writer's) money and property after death, names preferred guardians for surviving minor children and nominates an executor to manage the estate through the probate process. It is a post-mortem (after death) document.
  • Durable financial power of attorney: A power of attorney gives an agent or designee the authority to handle the person's financial and business affairs in case of incapacity. This "foundational document" is one that many times can forego the expensive, emotionally wearing and many times humiliating court process referred to as a Conservatorship.
  • Advance Health Care Directive, health care power of attorney & HIPAA Authorization: An Advance Health Care Directive may name a health care agent to make medical decisions in case of incapacity or direct what medical care may be given in case of incapacity or at end of life (Choice to Prolong vs. Not to Prolong Life). It also enables one to make decisions when it comes to disposition of remains (standard burial, cremation, etc.) as well as anatomical gifting (organ and tissue donation). In sum, by having this document prepared, one is removing much of the burden and potential guilt that may be placed on a loved one if they were forced to make the decision on one's behalf.

Many other estate planning documents and tools exist such as the revocable living (which is primarily used to avoid the long and expensive probate process, can provide tax planning as well as control planning) and testamentary trusts, lifetime gifting, guardianship and conservatorship, co-ownership of property, life insurance, designation of retirement plan beneficiaries and more. Engaging a lawyer to explore all options for a particular person's estate needs can be crucially important.

The law firm of Brayton Purcell, L.L.P., with offices in California, Utah and Oregon provides comprehensive estate planning services to clients.