WHAT A WILL DOES
A will directs distribution of a deceased person’s property. The assets which are distributed under a will are commonly called “probate property.” Probate property includes any asset owned by the decedent in his or her name alone. Through the probate process, the probate property is transferred to the beneficiaries designated in the decedent’s will.
Some assets are not probate property, and do not pass to beneficiaries through the probate process. For example, jointly held property with a right of survivorship passes automatically to the joint owner, without a need for probate. Married couples commonly own their home and bank accounts jointly, with a right of survivorship. On the first death, the home and bank accounts automatically pass to the survivor. If the home or bank account is still solely in the name of the survivor when he or she passes, the home or bank account will be probate property, subject to the probate process.
Other assets are also commonly not probate property. For example, the death benefits of a life insurance policy usually pass to a designated beneficiary, without the need for a probate. However, if the “estate” of the decedent is listed as the beneficiary, the proceeds of the life insurance policy are probate property, subject to the probate process.
Similarly, retirement accounts generally pass to a designated beneficiary, without the need for a probate process. [Which is why it is very important to periodically review “who” is listed as your beneficiary under retirement accounts.]
Property held in a revocable trust is also not probate property. Instead, assets held in the revocable trust pass outside of probate to the beneficiaries designated in the trust. If you have questions regarding whether a revocable trust is appropriate for you, please read this website’s section regarding revocable trusts. It will help you decide whether a will or a trust is appropriate for you.