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Newark Family And Estate Law Blog

You’ve written your will. That’s a great first step.

But that’s all it is. A first step.

To make sure your assets don’t wind up in the hands of a California probate court, you need to take your estate planning a step further. A simple will might not address more complicated issues, and you don’t want your heirs to have to figure it all out when you’re gone.

An estate plan will answer the questions your family might have: What you want to happen in the event of your death, why you have made those choices and who will make sure your wishes are carried out.

You don’t want to leave your family to wonder.

Here is how you can get started.

Record your financial assets and debts

List your assets, including real estate, personal property, financial accounts and life insurance. Also list your debts, including your mortgage, car loans and credit card balances. Write down the value of each asset and the beneficiaries. Your spouse likely jointly owns your home, and your insurance and financial accounts should have beneficiaries.

Go so far as to earmark personal property to an individual if you think some things might be fought over. That could be something of large monetary value, such as an expensive piece of jewelry, to things of only sentimental value, such as Grandma’s old carving knife that has been used every holiday. Your heirs could fight over things big and small.

Write a letter detailing your intentions and instructions

Let’s go back to that piece of jewelry and say it’s an engagement ring. You should state in a letter to your heirs that you want your son to have it so he can give it to his future wife, or you want your daughter to have it so she can wear it when she gets married, guaranteeing it will stay in the family. That way, your children won’t argue and say, “But Mom told me I could have it one day.”

Choose someone who will carry out your wishes as your executor

It is essential you select a person who will be able to make tough decisions, act in a timely manner and be prepared to do what you wanted – even if it means disappointing that son who wanted the ring.

This is not a do-it-yourself task, in most cases. Be prepared to consult with an attorney. He or she can help you learn more about your legal options.

When you create an estate plan these days, you need to worry about more than the money in your bank or retirement account, your house and the things in it.

We own a lot more than what we can see.

There’s a whole world of things that belong to Californians out there in cyberspace and on the cloud. They are things we can’t reach out and hand to someone to inherit or that one of our heirs can rip up and throw away on our behalf.

Doesn’t it make sense to include them in our estate plan?

It sure does, especially because they typically are hidden behind passwords. And our executors or family members are left to try to crack through the digital codes.

There are things online of tangible value – such as bank or investment accounts – and sentimental value, such as years’ worth of family photos stored on the cloud. Your family members likely won’t have access to them unless you give it to them.

Under California’s Revised Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, executors and trustees are allowed access to a deceased person’s digital assets under certain conditions.

The executor or trustee, in many cases, will need to have evidence of the decedent’s consent, or perhaps get a court order, to verify their authority to touch the digital assets.

In creating your estate plan, you must leave a road map for the executor to follow. List everything you do online – email, social media, photo-sharing sites, credit card and bank accounts, airline miles sites, bill payment services and more – and leave account numbers, login information, the passwords and answers to challenge questions.

Keep that list safe. There are apps and other password management systems that are encrypted and can maintain its security. Write down your master user name password and put it in your safe deposit box so that your executor can access it.

Your estate planning attorney can provide more details on keeping your digital assets safe. It’s a step you must take to help your executor distribute valuables to your heirs.

In many families in California, there are two kinds of “kids”: the two-legged kind and the four-legged kind.

When it comes to the two-legged ones, parenting plans are set, custody is ordered by a judge and parents arrange pick ups and drops offs of their children.

But in California, a law took effect on Jan. 1 that treats the four-legged ones in much the same way.

After hearing about disputed pet custody cases in divorce, California lawmakers adopted a bill that outlines just what judges consider when it comes to custody of a family pet. It allows judges to ask things such as “Who takes the dog to the vet?” when considering whether someone in a divorce case should have sole or joint custody.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown, himself an owner of two dogs, signed the bill before his term expired at the end of 2018.

Alaska and Illinois have similar laws that took effect in 2017. Other states are considering such a law. Most states largely consider pets to be property rather than a member of the family.

So just what else can California judges consider when deciding pet custody?

  • Who brought the pet into the family?
  • Who is the primary person to feed, walk and buy food or toys for the animal?
  • Who devotes the most time to the pet?
  • Have there been any allegations of pet abuse?

This is a new avenue of California divorce law, but for many pet owners – rather pet “parents” – it undoubtedly is a welcome change. It is expected that many pet owners who are divorcing will take advantage of the law to file for custody.