How Our Stuff Passes When We Die

Dan Galli, CFP |

As part of our financial planning process, we review and discuss beneficiary designations when we review a client’s estate plan. People are often unclear about what estate planning really entails. Sometimes it helps to think of estate planning as making sure that when we die, that all our stuff goes to who we might want it to, as quickly, quietly, and as cheaply as possible.

There are three ways that our stuff can be passed when we die.

Beneficiary Designations

Accounts such as retirement accounts, annuities and life insurance all allow the account owner to name a beneficiary. When the owner dies, the beneficiary receives the account, quietly, quickly, and cheaply.


There are several ways that titling, or ownership, can vary. 

  • Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship, often designated as JTWROS. At death, ownership of the account simply changes to the other owner. 
  • Tenants in the Entirety. This type of ownership can only be held by married couples, and is not only joint but is also non-severable. In most cases this means that one spouse’s share cannot be liable to the creditors of the other spouse.
  • Tenants in Common. In this case the owner’s share passes to his or her estate, rather than to the other owner(s).
  • Transfer (or Payable) on Death designations. This designation is only for non-retirement accounts that are owned singly. Upon the owner’s death, the account transfers to the named individual(s).
  • A revocable trust. The trust has a trustee who has control of the assets during life, and often a different trustee who manages or distributes the assets upon death. The trust can distribute my stuff based on my wishes either before or after death.


Most everything else that doesn’t pass through one of the methods above, goes through probate. Probate is a legal process and has several drawbacks:

  • It’s not quick, it’s slow.
  • It’s not quiet, it’s public.
  • It’s not cheap, as fees and costs must be paid.  

This is where a will comes into play. At the end of the probate process, the court distributes my remaining assets based on my will. For people who have died without a will, the court has a standard one they use, per the laws of intestacy. 

Probate can be avoided by taking the time to make sure I have the right primary and secondary beneficiaries on the relevant accounts, and by using effective titling on other accounts and on trusts, if needed.

Let us know if you have questions about titling or account ownership, or see your estate planning attorney for more details.