Writing a last will and testament allows you to establish how your California estate will be dispersed to your heirs. However, wills do not provide total control over all assets. Some assets cannot be governed by a will, and if you are not careful, money from an insurance policy or pension might not go to the beneficiary you had intended.
According to the American Bar Association, people use wills to distribute property that is part of a probate estate. This is property that is expected to go through probate. You may designate heirs in a will to receive this property. Additionally, you can use a will to name an executor to oversee your estate, and to assign guardians for your minor children if needed.
However, some assets, known as non-probate property, cannot be governed by a will. Non-probate property is controlled by title or contract. What will happen to non-probate assets is already worked out beforehand. In many cases, non-probate property has a designated beneficiary that will receive the property or assets automatically after you pass away.
Commonly, retirement plans and insurance policies are considered non-probate property. When you set up a pension or an insurance policy, you generally assign a beneficiary to receive the assets upon your death. Your workplace may also provide you with employee death benefits that pay out to your family. Some people create a payable on death account with their bank that pays out to a beneficiary.
Wills also do not control who gets assets that have right of survivorship provisions. While a piece of real estate may go through probate because the deceased owner was the sole owner, real estate that is co-owned with a right of survivorship will pass to the surviving owner automatically. This is true with other assets, like automobiles and bank accounts, that have right of survivorship designations.
CNBC explains that some people may try to use a will to dictate what happens to retirement pensions or insurance policies, but courts take beneficiary designations as the authoritative word on who gets money or benefits. A will is very unlikely to override any beneficiary designation. So California residents who want to change beneficiaries must do so on a beneficiary form.