The California TOD deed form allows property to be automatically transferred to a new owner when the current owner dies, without the need to go through probate. It also gives the current owner retained control over the property, including the right to change his or her mind about the transfer.
Special language is required to ensure that the deed qualifies as a TOD deed. This language is automatically included by our deed preparation service and valid in all California counties.
Attorney Note: This article has been updated to reflect the changes enacted by the California legislature effective January 1, 2022. For an explanation of these changes, see our discussion of the 2022 Updates to California Transfer-on-Death Deed Law.
The California TOD deed form allows a person to avoid probate by using a deed to transfer property at his or her death. California first authorized TOD deeds on January 1, 2016, joining the growing list of states that allow probate to be avoided when property is transferred by a revocable deed.
Living trusts have long been the go-to technique for avoiding California probate. Living trusts work by removing property from a person’s probate estate. That means that, when property is transferred to a living trust, it is no longer owned by a living person and need not be probated when that person dies.
A California TOD deed form provides a low-cost alternative to a living trust. As stated by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), who introduced the new law:
Just like a person can designate a bank account to go to a loved one upon death, by allowing individuals to transfer property cleanly through a TOD deed, we can avoid the expensive probate process and give families greater peace of mind.
By allowing California homeowners to decide who should receive their home upon their death, a TOD deed functions in much the same way as a beneficiary designation on a bank account or investment account. This means that:
This structure accomplishes the twin goals of giving the owner flexibility during life and avoiding probate at death.
Although the California statutes use the term revocable transfer-on-death deed, the word “revocable” is often omitted, so that the deed is called a transfer-on-death deed or simply a TOD deed. In Illinois, this type of deed is called a transfer-on-death instrument. In Nevada, it is called a deed upon death. In other states, it is called a beneficiary deed. These terms all refer to the same type of deed.
A transfer-on-death deed serves the same purpose as a lady bird deed, but there are differences between the two types of deeds. Lady bird deeds are only used in five states (Florida, Michigan, Texas, West Virginia, and Vermont) and are not recognized in California.
A California TOD deed form contains several features that make it a popular estate planning tool for California homeowners:
The creation and recording of a TOD deed have no immediate consequences. The homeowner continues to hold all ownership rights. This means that the owner can still transfer the property, sign contracts that affect the property, or take out loans or other encumbrances against the property. The TOD deed does not affect the owner’s property taxes during the owner’s lifetime.
The homeowner also retains the right to revoke the deed. To cancel the deed, the homeowner can either create and record a new TOD deed, transfer the property to someone else before death, or file a written revocation in the land records. The California statutes set out a specific form for a Revocation of Revocable Transfer-on-Death Deed.
The broad ownership rights retained by the owner distinguish TOD deeds from traditional life estate deeds, which grant immediate ownership rights to the remainder beneficiary. With a TOD deed, neither the beneficiaries nor any creditors of the beneficiaries have any right to the property while the owner is alive. In fact, there is no requirement to even notify the beneficiaries about the TOD deed.
The TOD deed takes effect when the homeowner dies. On the owner’s death, the property will pass to the beneficiaries named in the TOD deed. The beneficiaries must record evidence of death (usually a death certificate) in the land records and provide notice of the owner’s death to the owner’s heirs—with copies of the TOD deed and death certificate. If the property owner received California Medicaid (Medi-Cal) benefits, the beneficiary also notifies the State Department of Health Care Services.
Each beneficiary named in the TOD deed is personally liable for any unsecured debts of the deceased owner to the extent of the property value that the beneficiary received in the TOD deed. The beneficiaries are also responsible for any property taxes, including changes in the property taxes that result from transferring ownership.
Special rules apply if the current owner holds the property with other owners (i.e., if there are multiple owners of the property). These rules prevent contradictions between survivorship rights and the terms of the deed.
To understand these rules, understand how survivorship rights work. If multiple owners hold title with survivorship rights (joint tenancy with right of survivorship or community property with right of survivorship), each owner’s interest in the property passes to the surviving owners upon death. The last surviving owner owns the entire property.
With this background, it’s easy to see how the survivorship rights may contradict the terms of a TOD deed. If a property has survivorship rights, it passes to the surviving owners. If the property is transferred by TOD deed, it passes to the beneficiaries named in the TOD deed. These conflicting concepts create conflicting results.
To resolve this conflict, the California TOD deed statute invalidates TOD deeds for property held with right of survivorship if—and only if—the property would pass to a surviving owner under a right of survivorship. If the property would not pass to anyone else by right of survivorship (because the current owner is the last surviving owner), the TOD deed will control. Here’s the exact language from the question-and-answer section of California Probate Code § 5642:
WHAT IS THE EFFECT OF A TOD DEED ON PROPERTY THAT I OWN AS JOINT TENANCY OR COMMUNITY PROPERTY WITH RIGHT OF SURVIVORSHIP?
If you are the first joint tenant or spouse to die, the deed is VOID and has no effect. The property transfers to your joint tenant or surviving spouse and not according to this deed. If you are the last joint tenant or spouse to die, the deed takes effect and controls the ownership of your property when you die. If you do not want these results, do not use this form. The deed does NOT transfer the share of a co-owner of the property. Any co-owner who wants to name a TOD beneficiary must complete and RECORD a SEPARATE deed.
This means that, if there is a conflict between the TOD deed and a right of survivorship, the right of survivorship will control the transfer of the property. If there is no conflict because the current owner is the last surviving owner, the TOD deed will control.
The practical effect of this is to create different planning strategies depending on the form of co-ownership.
If there are multiple owners with survivorship rights and the owners use the second strategy (each owner signing a separate TOD deed), there is a risk that the last surviving owner could change his or her mind and revoke the TOD deed or leave the property to someone else. This could be a problem in a second marriage situation.
Example: Juan and Hillary have each been married before and have one child from their respective prior marriages. They decide that they want to leave their home to the two children in equal shares. Each of them signs a TOD deed naming their child and their spouse’s child as beneficiaries. After Hillary dies, Juan revokes the TOD deed by signing a new TOD deed leaving the entire property to Juan’s child. This effectively disinherits Hillary’s child.
For many families (including those that do not involve children from prior marriages), this risk may be insignificant. But if it is a concern, the co-owners should consider an alternative strategy, such as a contract not to revoke the TOD deed or transfer to a living trust.
As with other states (like Texas), a California TOD deed does not affect Medi-Cal eligibility because the deed has no effect during the person’s lifetime. But, as stated above, the beneficiaries named in the TOD deed must notify the California State Department of Health Care Services if the homeowner received Medi-Cal benefits before his or her death. The home may be liable for reimbursement for Medi-Cal expenses paid before the owner’s death.
California law is particular about the requirements of TOD deeds. Many requirements are inflexible and differ from requirements for other types of deeds (like ordinary quitclaim deeds, grant deeds, and warranty deeds). The TOD deed requirements include:
The California transfer-on-death deed forms created by our Deed Generator were designed by attorneys to meet the requirements of California law for revocable transfer-on-death deeds.