Guide to Estate Planning in California and Washington

washington state estate planning

We’ve all heard the phrase “you can’t take it with you”. But that begs the question…what do you do with your stuff when you pass away!?  Do you leave it all to your spouse? Your kids? Give some assets to a special charity? Should you account for the grandkids? There’s a lot to sort out when setting up an estate plan. 

Estate planning can be an emotional and stressful task. It can also be an incredibly meaningful opportunity to reflect on your life and think about your legacy. You don’t want just any lawyer to assist you in this significant task.  

You need a compassionate, skilled attorney who will provide you both insightful legal advice and emotional support. You can find this ideal combination in the attorneys at The Harbor Law Group, where we offer comprehensive plans that take into account your financial and personal legacy. To learn more about estate planning in both California and Washington state, contact our attorneys for a free consultation.

What Is Estate Planning?

Estate planning involves making decisions for the distribution of your property, and possibly for the care of your minor children, after you die. It is a complicated area of law, which is why you need an experienced attorney to help you navigate the many pitfalls. 

Much of estate planning focuses on passing your property efficiently, while minimizing estate taxes. For example, did you know that in Washington state, an estate tax is imposed on all estates in excess of $2.193 Million?  (Oddly enough, California has no such tax.) And let’s not forget about the Federal Estate Tax, which will tax 40% of anything over its minimum. Careful estate planning in both California and Washington States allows you to minimize negative estate tax repercussions, maximize the tax basis of your assets, and protect more of your assets for those you love.

An estate plan allows you to clarify your wishes in binding, legal documents. These legal documents instruct:

  • Who will receive your property?
  • What property will they receive?
  • When will they receive this property?

Whether you choose to distribute your entire estate upon your death or gradually give things away during (or even after!) your lifetime, our attorneys can help. We want to protect your assets and ensure they are passed along the way you want.

What Is an Estate?

Your estate includes all of your money and property. Your estate might include these possessions:

  • Real property, such as homes and land;
  • Personal property, such as automobiles, heirlooms, and furniture; 
  • Checking and savings accounts; 
  • Retirement and Investment Accounts; and 
  • Insurance policies.

An estate consists of everything that you have worked for and built during your lifetime. Along with your relationships with the people you loved, an estate holds your legacy.

How Does Marriage Affect Your Estate?

Washington and California are community property states. This means that if you are married, some assets will be handled a little differently when you die than they might be in other states.  

All assets acquired during your marriage are considered community property. This means that your spouse owns half of all those assets, no matter whose name they are in. For example, if you have a boat in your name that you bought with money earned while you were married, your spouse automatically owns half of it, regardless of title. When you pass away, you can leave half of your community property assets to whomever you choose in your will, but the other half will remain with your spouse.

Conversely, assets you had before you got married are considered separate property. Inheritances and gifts you received during the marriage are also separate property. As long as you keep these assets separate, you can leave them to anyone you want in your will. But once you commingle them, they can become community property. For example, if you inherited $100,000 from your parents and put it in a joint bank account with your spouse, it may become community property.

Many Washington and California couples create community property agreements as part of their estate plan. These agreements automatically transfer all community property to a surviving spouse at death while avoiding probate. This type of agreement is not for everyone, however. Your estate attorney can help you understand the pros and cons of a community property agreement.

What About My Legacy? 

In addition to passing your property to your loved ones, our firm understands the complex emotional side of estate planning. This is why, in addition to all of the legally required documents, our firm offers a number of unique planning opportunities, like: 

  • A family meeting: we want your family to fully understand the nuances of the plan you’ve selected (including important medical information); 
  • A legacy interview: the opportunity for you to record and leave valuable insight or messages of love to your family; 
  • A babysitter’s booklet: for those with young children, this valuable tool gives your babysitter instructions in case of emergency; and
  • An asset spreadsheet: do your loved ones where you bank or how to pay your mortgage? This incredible document is a map which will aid your loved ones in case of your death or incapacity.

Important Estate Planning Terms

Our female-owned law firm is unique in several ways. For one, we believe in transparent pricing, such as offering flat-fee estate planning.  Also, we don’t try to impress you with fancy-sounding legal words. We want you to understand everything about your estate plan, from beginning to end. Following are a few of the more common terms you might hear in our office: 

  • Beneficiary: A named person who receives your property through a will, trust, or other instrument;
  • Decedent: A person who died;
  • Executor or personal representative: A person who distributes your estate after you die;
  • Guardian: Someone who makes legal decisions for or manages the property on behalf of a minor or incapacitated person;
  • Probate: The court-supervised process of distributing property after someone’s death; and
  • Living Trust: A legal agreement where property is managed by one or more individuals for the benefit of the beneficiaries.

Knowing these legal terms will make your estate planning conversations easier to understand. If you ever have a question about a legal term or an estate planning option, please ask us. Our knowledgeable attorneys value open communication and trusted relationships with the clients we serve.

What Documents Do You Need?

When you meet with our Washington and California state estate planning attorneys for a complimentary consultation, we will discuss documents that you may need to create a comprehensive estate plan. To ensure that your estate efficiently transfers to the people you want to have it, we will consider the following documents:

  • Last Will and Testament,
  • Living Trust,
  • Beneficiary designations for all accounts (such as life insurance, retirement accounts, even checking and savings accounts!),
  • Living will (or Healthcare Directive), and
  • Powers of attorney for financial and medical decisions.

You may choose to include some or all of these instruments in your estate plan. Our attorneys can discuss the benefits of each and create a customized plan that meets your needs.

Contact us Today

Ensure that your legacy is preserved the way you want by talking to one of our experienced estate planning attorneys. We offer a free consultation, so you can get to know us and decide if you trust us with this important task. If you’re ready to get started, contact us to set up your meeting!