Do you have an estate plan? If you live in California, do you know the basics of estate planning in the Golden State? If your answer is “no,” it’s time for Estate Planning 101.

An estate plan is a must for every adult, but before planning your estate, you need to understand the estate planning basics. As a Californian, there are some state-specific issues that you need to keep in mind. We created our Estate Planning 101 for Californians for informational purposes to familiarize you with estate planning terms, protocol, and more.

Important Definitions for Estate Planning 101

Before we dive into the topic of estate planning, let’s go over some basic definitions. If you know a little about estate planning already, you can skip this section. However, to take the most advantage of this easy-to-understand guide, you’ll want to know these two definitions.

What Is an Estate?

In California, “estate” refers to any item or asset under your ownership during your time of death. So when making an estate plan, you have to account for all types of property you own. Some of the properties that make up an estate include:

  • Bank accounts under your name
  • Real property (a.k.a. real estate)
  • Stocks and other securities
  • Retirement assets (retirement accounts/retirement plans)
  • Personal property like jewelry, artwork, or automobiles
  • Life insurance policies

Estate Planning

Estate planning comprises a couple of processes. A typical estate planning process entails developing plans for personal asset management and property transfer upon your demise. When you decide to plan for your estate, it means that you want to make it clear how you want your estate assets handled when you die.

With a good estate plan, your dependents or beneficiaries can avoid the time-consuming probate process when seeking the ownership of assets you leave behind. Planning your estates comes with significant benefits should a major life event as an unexpected tragedy or incapacitation occur as well.

Do I Really Need an Estate Plan in California?

This is the question every financial advisor and tax advisor is sick of hearing. The short answer! Yes! Everyone needs to have an estate plan in California and elsewhere. Estate planning isn’t for the chosen few but for each one of us. Having an estate plan doesn’t require you to be rich, elderly, or wealthy.

If you’re an adult above the age of 18, you should start thinking of an estate plan for everything you own. Estate planning has many great benefits for even the most modest of circumstances. Here are just three of the most common excuses and why you shouldn’t let them deter you.

Estate Planning Excuse #1: I Don’t Own Much

It’s not a must to have several assets before drafting an estate plan. Estate plans simply ensure you get control of who gets what when you die. In a living will, you can also state your wishes if you become incapacitated and are not able to make critical decisions on your own; this does not require owning any property at all.

Estate Planning Excuse #2: I Can’t Afford an Attorney

Making an estate plan might seem expensive. This should not worry you, however. You can make decisions about the distribution of property all by yourself without an estate attorney. Depending on your budget, you can select a more affordable estate planning service from a legal document assistant like A People’s Choice. It’s not a requirement to seek such services from a qualified estate planning attorney.

Estate Planning Excuse #3: It Seems Like a Pain

Though it may seem like a hassle, estate planning can help you make important decisions and can ultimately save your family a lot of trouble. During estate planning, the first step entails making a review of every asset you own. This helps you develop a clear perspective on how you want your personal property distributed and major life decisions made.

If you don’t want to subject your loved ones to hard choices if you become terminally ill, consider making an estate plan with clear healthcare directives. With an estate plan, you can specify your long-term healthcare wishes and other healthcare directives so your family won’t have to wonder. Plus, you can’t always assume that everything concerning property inheritance will go on smoothly (including payment of estate tax) when you die. Estate plans to minimize squabbling among family members during an already stressful time.

Estate planning for family

Estate Planning 101 for Californians: Basic Questions

Now that we’ve got those definitions out of the way and hopefully convinced you that you need an estate plan, it’s time to jump right into the main topic.

Estate plans are all unique. To determine the most essential documents for your estate plan, you need to answer questions such as the ones below. These will help you figure out where to start.

  • What asset type or asset size do you own?
  • What is the amount of estate taxes needed to transfer property ownership?
  • What is your financial situation at the moment? What key financial decisions do you need to make?
  • Who are the potential beneficiaries or contingent beneficiaries for your estate?
  • Do you have any minor children who need guardianship?
  • What funeral arrangements suit you?

Who Inherits Your Property?

A big part of estate planning is choosing beneficiaries. As an overview of estate planning, you may want to include a list of your beneficiaries. This could include people, persons, or organizations to whom you want to receive part of your assets at death.

Another way to transfer property to the desired beneficiaries is through terms of a contract. Many assets require a contract, including the following. Assets under the terms of contract always pass to named beneficiaries regardless of what the will says.

  • Life insurance policies
  • Joint bank accounts
  • Assets owned as a joint tenant with the right of survivorship
  • Testamentary trust or revocable living trust
  • IRAs
  • Pensions

What If I’m Married?

Keep in mind that beneficiary designation is not necessary for property under joint ownership. The other party with whom you jointly own property will claim this property when you die. For example, if you own a house with your spouse, your portion will transfer on death to your spouse.

For married couples, the terms outlined in the will or the contract of a specific asset still come into play. It’s not automatic that the other spouse will take control of all your property and personal finances if you should pass away first. You can plan overtime to leave assets to other important people in your life.

Essential Documents for Estate Planning 101

When developing a comprehensive estate plan, you may need more than basic documents such as last will and testament. Aim to include a variety of documents to enhance the completeness of your plan and cover all your bases. These documents should address all issues concerning your estate plan. Here are some essential estate planning documents that may choose to complete their estate plans.

Medical Documents

These documents have to do with your affairs while you’re still alive but perhaps incapable of making decisions on your own.

A durable power of attorney

This is a document in which you specify the person to handle your non-health and non-medical issues. This document is a variation of the financial power of attorney, and it remains in effect even during incapacitation.

Advance health care directive (AHCD)

What should happen to you when placed on a life support machine? What if you need an organ transplant? This is a legal document in which you outline possible medical actions. These go into effect if you become incapacitated or are unable to make key medical decisions on your own.

An AHCD can comprise a living will and medical power of attorney. In a living will, you outline your medical directives if admitted to the hospital. For a medical power of attorney, you get to choose someone to make key medical decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated.

HIPAA authorization

This is a document in which you give consent for a third party to access your medical history or information.  

Standard Estate Planning Documents

For the most part, these documents manage your estate and finances both during and after your passing.

Financial power of attorney (POA)

This legal document grants someone the authority to oversee your financial affairs if you become incapacitated.


This document enables you to select an individual to hold property on behalf of your beneficiaries. The person with the right to hold your assets is known as a trustee. There are a lot of different trusts (irrevocable trusts, for example) that may be best for your taxable estate. A trust can either be active during your lifetime or go into effect after your death; a tax advisor may be able to help you pick the right one.


This is a legal document in which you give your last wishes concerning how you want your assets distributed among your heirs and beneficiaries (both primary beneficiary and contingent beneficiary) when you die. This is a staple of both simple and complex estates and can be modified to include intangible assets.


Do you have minor children? If you die or become incapacitated, this section of estate plans specifies who should care for them. In this component of estate plans, you can give instructions as to how you would like the chosen guardian to provide necessary care to your children.

Get Help with Estate Planning Basics

Making up your mind to plan your estate is just the first step. If you’re new to estate planning in California, you can seek the services of a legal document assistant to get affordable and professional help with your estate.

At A People’s Choice, we can help you with all paperwork for effective estate planning. We guarantee accurate and valid estate plan documents so you can take this step towards estate planning and inheritance without errors. To get started, you can contact us here or call us at 800-747-2780.