After a person dies, his assets will be distributed based upon beneficiary designations and documents such as a Will or Living Trust. Some married couples may have a Community Property Agreement. Probate of an estate may or may not be necessary.

Beneficiary Designations (Or Payable-On-Death, Transfer On Death Designations)

Investment accounts, IRAs, 401K accounts, annuities, and life insurance policies typically have beneficiary designations. Accounts are sometimes designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD). These designations take precedence over a Will. It is therefore very important to know what beneficiary designations have been made, and to keep such designations up to date. I recommend getting a print-out of the designations from the company, and keeping that written document with your estate planning documents.

Community Property Agreement

This simple document for married couples transfers all of your property to your spouse when you die. By using this method of transferring your property, you can avoid probate upon the death of the first spouse. A community property agreement may not be appropriate for all couples, and the surviving spouse still needs to have a Will or Living Trust.


document designates a Personal Representative (Executor) and directs how your probate assets (real estate, financial assets without beneficiary designations, and personal property) will be distributed after your death. If you die without a Will, your property will be distributed to your spouse, children, or other relatives according to state law. You can change your Will at any time, as long as you have legal capacity to do so. Your Will has no effect before you die. A Will must be properly executed and witnessed to be valid. You should have a Will if you would like certain people or charities to receive your assets when you die, to designate the person who will administer your estate, to choose a guardian for your minor children, or to create a trust to leave property to minor children or persons who cannot manage their own assets.

Revocable Living Trust (Inter Vivos Trust)

Some people choose to have a revocable living trust to direct how their assets will be distributed after their death. An estate planning attorney can advise you on the pros and cons of having a living trust.

Tangible Personal Property List

State law provides that a written list directing the disposition of tangible personal property to specific recipients can be attached to your Will or Living Trust. The list should be signed and dated, but does not need to be witnessed.

Memorial Instructions

Under Washington state law, a person has the right to control the disposition of his or her remains, provided such instructions are in writing and witnessed. Some people make pre-arrangements through a funeral home or organization. It is important to write down your wishes for burial or cremation, and to designate a family member or friend who can make any additional decisions.