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Frequently Asked Questions About Probate, Trusts, Wills, and Estate Planning in California

Answers from an experienced estate attorney in Laguna Hills

At Genevieve Wall, A Law Corporation, I understand you may have questions about Probate, Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning.   I am pleased to provide answers here to some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) I have received over the years.   Please note that these questions and answers are general in nature and might not apply to your situation.

People have asked me “Why should I hire an attorney to handle a probate for me, or to prepare an estate plan for me, when I can get inexpensive (or free) forms online?”    I have reminded them that when an attorney handles a probate or prepares an estate plan for a client, you are not paying for the documents that the attorney prints and hands to you to sign – you are paying for several things, including:  (i) the time the attorney spent educating herself so she knows which documents you need,  (ii) the time she spent crafting model forms, and revising them periodically as laws change, and  (iii) her experience and judgment to know how to complete various parts of the documents in the way that will be most beneficial to you (it is not just your name).    For example, think of pre-printed court forms, or a pre-printed IRA beneficiary designation.   It might take an experienced lawyer only a few minutes to select and fill in the appropriate court form or to insert the name of the IRA beneficiary.   But think of all the factors that go into properly completing the court form so that it will be accepted by the court, or that go into choosing which beneficiary designation is most appropriate for this particular client.   You are paying the attorney for her expertise and skill in preparing documents that are suitable for you – you are not paying her for the pages of paper that she prepares for you.

For specific legal advice and support, please call my office and schedule a consultation.

Estate planning and administration




Health care directives and powers of attorney

To schedule a free initial consultation on your estate planning questions, contact my office today

I offer a courtesy initial consultation to prospective clients who need to open a California Probate court proceeding, or who need to administer a Living Trust after the death of a Trustor, or who want to establish a Trust, a Will, or an estate plan.

To schedule a free initial consultation to discuss opening a California Probate court proceeding, or to discuss administering a Living Trust after the death of a Trustor, or to discuss setting up a Trust, a Will, or an estate plan, call me today at 949-859-0861 or contact me online.   My office is located in the Laguna Hills Civic Center, City Hall building.

Your call will be promptly returned. Set in the Laguna Hills Civic Center, City Hall building, my office serves clients from throughout Orange County and Southern California.   My office has free parking, and it is accessible by public transportation. My office hours are flexible: I can schedule a time that is convenient for you.

Estate planning and administration

What is estate planning?

Your estate consists of the property, valuables and investments that you own. Good estate planning establishes a way to preserve your assets for your beneficiaries following your death through wills and trusts. It also includes health care directives and powers of attorney to ensure your wishes are upheld and your estate managed if you become incapacitated.

Does everyone need an estate plan?

Yes. Even if you’re net worth is modest, establishing an estate plan helps ensure that your property goes to the people you choose, avoiding disputes between your children or other heirs.

What are the documents in an estate plan?

Every situation is different, but in general, an estate plan should include a properly prepared will, power of attorney for health care and power of attorney for financial administration. Many estate plans also include trust documents.

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What is probate?

Probate is the court-administered process for closing out an estate after the owner’s death. Probate includes determining the value of the estate, identifying outstanding bills and debts and paying them off, paying any estate taxes, and, finally, distributing the balance of the estate to the heirs.

Can I handle probate myself?

Probate requires a thorough collection of information on the estate, filling out tax forms and other forms, and communicating with the probate court. An estate planning attorney experienced in probate can ease your burden; prepare the paperwork for you; and, in general, help ensure that you comply with all relevant aspects of the probate laws.

How long does probate take?

For most estates, probate can be completed within nine months. Large or complicated estates or estates with poor record keeping might require more time.

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Do I need a lawyer to draft my will?

A will should cover all aspects of your estate and potential contingencies. Its language must be clear and unambiguous and might need to incorporate specific legal terms to comply with estate law. An experienced estate-planning lawyer can draft a will that should withstand contest. He or she may also raise considerations regarding your estate that you might not have thought of yourself.

What happens if someone dies without a will?

Without a will, the wishes of the deceased are not documented legally and cannot be followed. The probate court will determine how the property will be distributed based on California laws of intestate succession. In general, close family members may receive assets based on certain criteria.

What are the responsibilities of an executor?

The job of the executor is to manage the estate through probate and to distribute the estate as expressed in the will. This includes paying outstanding bills and debts, filling out probate and other forms, notifying life insurance companies and communicating with the heirs to ensure they receive their inheritance once the estate is settled.

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What is a trust?

A trust is, broadly defined, a relationship in which property is held by someone (the trustee) for the benefit of another (the beneficiary). Trusts can be an effective way to preserve wealth, provide tax advantages and avoid probate. The beneficiary of a trust receives income from investments, but the principal stays intact during the existence of the trust. There are many types of trusts: Some last indefinitely, but others can be revoked by the person who created them. An experienced trust attorney can review your situation and recommend and prepare an appropriate trust.

How is a trust different from a will?

A trust takes effect as soon as it’s created and can be used to distribute property before or after you die. But it can only distribute property you’ve placed in the trust. A will, on the other hand, covers all aspects of your estate and becomes effective only upon your death. Although a will can grant a specific amount or percentage of the estate to an heir, the will cannot put restrictions on that inheritance. For example, you cannot specify in your will that a grandchild must complete college in order to receive an inheritance. In a trust, however, you can do so.

Can I use a trust to support a disabled child?

Yes. You can set up a special needs trust and specify that the income be used to support a disabled or special needs child throughout the child’s lifetime.

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Health care directives and powers of attorney

What is a health care directive?

This is a legal document in which you express your health care wishes if you become unable to participate in health care decisions yourself.

What is power of attorney?

Power of attorney is a legal document in which you assign someone to handle certain aspects of your affairs if you become unable to handle them. Just as there are different kinds of trusts, there are also different powers of attorney that govern health care and finances.

To whom should I assign my power of attorney?

Power of attorney is an important responsibility that can significantly affect your life and your estate at a time when you are most vulnerable. You carefully should consider whom you designate. It should be someone you trust — someone who has your best interests at heart. Many people choose their spouse, a child, or a longtime friend.

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  • "Ms. Wall has been of great assistance in competently preparing our family trusts and assisting with all matters pertaining to the recent death of my mother in law. She is the best example of the professionalism and care for clients who characterizes a great attorney and counselor."  -LN

  • "Dear Genny, On behalf of our family, I want to take a moment to thank you for your time, patience, expertise and especially your kindness while helping us manage the affairs necessary after our Mother’s passing. You may remember commenting that we all seem to get along and how rare that was in your experience. Fortunately, we can appreciate what our parents had worked hard to be able to pass on to us. Having someone of your expertise to help guide us, made it all the easier! Thank you again. May you continue to enjoy personal happiness and professional success."  -Best regards. – MB

  • "I like your attention to details, your willingness to answer any and all questions, always getting copies of materials needed, and that you allowed plenty of time to explain over and over if needed. Keep up the good work!"  -RG

Our Office
  • Laguna Hills Office
    24031 El Toro Rd
    Suite 200
    Laguna Hills, California 92653
    Phone: 949-859-0861
    Fax: 949-362-1749