Even though you have an estate plan in place, you might still wonder what your family is going to have to do after you pass away. It's an important question and something that your family should be aware of since they (or someone else close to you) will most likely be the ones who will be carrying out the wishes that you've specified in your estate planning documents. The sequence of events that happen after you pass away turn primarily on the type of estate planning device that you've utilized.
Frozen In Time
As a general matter, your Will and/or Trust will be irrevocable (meaning that they cannot be altered) after you pass away. If you only have a Will and you have a large enough estate, your Will will need to be probated. Your Will will be probated in the county where you were living at the time of your death (usually). If you have real estate outside of California, then your Executor may need to initiate an ancillary probate in those other states.
If you established a Revocable Living Trust as your primary estate planning device, then after your death, your Trustee will handle the administration of the trust without court supervision or probate. The courts are available to settle any issues that your trustee or your beneficiaries may have, but otherwise, there's no need for court supervision. If you were married or in a registered domestic partnership at the time of your death and your trust holds community property, usually only your half of the community property and separate property will be affected, and the provisions of your trust that affect your property will become irrevocable and unamendable. (Your spouse or registered domestic partner's half will still be totally within his or her control.)
Even though one of the main goals of establishing a trust is to avoid probate, there might be a few situations where a probate proceeding may be initiated. There are additional expenses in beginning the probate process, but it could make sense in the following contexts:
- The Executor might want to establish that your Will was valid.
- It may be necessary to nominate the Guardian(s) that you've named in your Will to care for any minor children that you may have.
- Probating your Will can shorten the creditor's claim period from 1 year to 4 months.
Although it is not always advisable to divulge the specific contents of your estate planning documents to your family members, it can be a good idea to loop them in to the process so that they know what to do if you suddenly passed away.