Checklist for Legal Documents When Someone Dies in California

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When someone dies in California, important legal documents can govern what happens to her property and assets. Most people are familiar with wills, or last testaments, but other relevant documents are less well recognized, including trusts, life insurance and title documents.

Last Will and Testament

A will is a handwritten or printed document in which you describe who you want to inherit your property when you die. California law recognizes statutory wills -- printed wills in the form set out in the statutes -- and other forms of printed wills with the signatures of at least two witnesses. Handwritten wills, termed holographic wills, are also valid in California if written, signed and dated completely in the will maker's own handwriting.

Living and Testamentary Trusts

However, wills are not the only important legal documents to locate when a person dies. California recognizes both living trusts and testamentary trusts. A person creates and funds a living trust during her lifetime, but assets can also pass into the living trust upon her death if the will provides for this. This legal vehicle permits a person to transfer property at her death without going through probate. If a will creates and funds a trust, the trust is called a testamentary trust in California.

Read More: What Is a Non Testamentary Trust?

Other Documents

Some assets pass to others by designation in California. For example, the owner of a life insurance policy signs a document specifying a beneficiary, who is the person who will get the proceeds upon the owner's death. Title documents, such as deeds, are also relevant when someone dies because when one joint tenant dies, his share of the property passes by operation of law to the surviving owners, bypassing probate.


About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson,,, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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