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Estate plans prevent California judges from making your choices

A probate judge will decide what's best for your estate assets and minor children should you die intestate. Dying without a will means you forfeit control over the distribution of possessions and child guardianship. California succession laws, Probate Code sections 6400-6414, define what happens when you ignore estate planning.

Some Los Angeles residents choose an alternative to a lawyer-assisted document by handwriting a will, known as a holographic will, or downloading a generic form from a website. According to the California Bar, holographic and statutory wills are valid when they conform to state guidelines, but any disputes over them may require costly legal actions.

Wills appoint an executor to manage and distribute estate assets. A will's secondary but equally important purpose is to name a guardian for children under 18, should both parents die. Casual family agreements will not influence a judge's guardianship decision the way a legal document can.

Another often-ignored area of estate planning is a health care proxy. The document designates a person to make medical choices for you, if you are incapacitated. A health care proxy is as much protection for you as it is a relief for loved ones, who otherwise may be excluded from critical care decisions.

Some estate plans are expanded to include a trust, which offers enhanced control over estate assets before and after death. Among other benefits, trusts may help preserve assets for beneficiaries through tax savings. Trusts are either revocable or irrevocable, with each providing distinct advantages depending upon individual circumstances.

Legal decisions are made for you, when you can't or won't make them for yourself. Doctors may prescribe an undesirable medical treatment, because no patient instructions in legal documents prevented it. A judge could send your children to live with a guardian you would never choose, unless you and your spouse provide the court with guidance through a valid will.

Source: CNBC, "Where there's a will, there's a way" David Mendel, Mar. 02, 2014

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