Only property owned by the decedent at death can be disposed of by a will. A will cannot dispose of “nonprobate assets” assets which pass at death other than by will or intestacy. The principal types of nonprobate assets include property passing by contract, property passing by survivorship, and property held in trust. Property passing by contract includes life insurance proceeds, IRAs, and employee benefit plan proceeds, such as the proceeds payable under a pension, profit-sharing, or employee retirement plan. These assets pass outside the will to the persons named by the decedent in the appropriate beneficiary designations.
It is IMPORTANT to periodically review the beneficiary designations with respect to these type of assets and to update them as necessary. Property held by the decedent and another person as joint tenants with right of survivorship or in a pay on death account passes outside the will directly to the survivor. Survivorship assets typically include certain types of bank accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks and bonds, and certain savings bonds issued by the United States Government, such as Series EE savings bonds.
Another category of property that passes outside of probate is property held in a trust for the benefit of the decedent. The trust may have been created by the decedent during his or her lifetime for property management purposes or by someone else, such as a parent of the decedent. Trust assets pass under the terms of the trust rather than under the terms of the decedent’s will. It is important to determine the extent of one’s nonprobate assets when planning the disposition of one’s property at death. If a substantial portion of the assets are nonprobate assets that do not pass under the will, even a well-drafted will may be insufficient to carry out the testator’s intent in disposing of his or her property.