An overview of the benefits of preparing a last will and testament
By Barbara Craig, Attorney at Law
What happens if you die without a will?
If you die intestate (without a will), your state’s laws of descent and distribution will determine who receives your property by default. These laws vary from state to state, but typically the distribution would be to your spouse and children, or if none, to other family members. A state’s plan often reflects the legislature’s guess as to how most people would dispose of their estate and builds in protections for certain beneficiaries, particularly minor children. That plan may or may not reflect your actual wishes, and some of the built-in protections may not be necessary in a harmonious family setting. A will allows you to alter the state’s default plan to suit your personal preferences.
What a will does
A will provides for the distribution of property owned by you at the time of your death in any manner you choose. Your will cannot, however, govern the disposition of properties that pass outside your probate estate (such as certain joint property, life insurance, retirement plans and employee death benefits) unless they are payable to your estate.
Wills can be of various degrees of complexity and can be utilized to achieve a wide range of family and tax objectives. If a will provides for the outright distribution of assets, it is sometimes characterized as a simple will. If the will establishes one or more trusts, it is often called a testamentary trust will. Alternatively, the will may leave probate assets to a preexisting inter vivos trust (created in your lifetime), in which case it is called a pour over will. In either case, the purpose of the trust arrangement (as opposed to outright distribution) is to ensure continued property management and creditor protection for the surviving family members, to provide for charities, and to minimize taxes.
Aside from providing for the intended disposition of your property to spouse, children etc., there are a number of other important objectives that may be accomplished in your will.
What a will does not do
A will does not govern the transfer of certain types of assets, called nonprobate property, which by operation of law or contract pass to someone else on your death.
How to execute a will
Wills are signed in the presence of witnesses and certain formalities must be observed. A later amendment to a will is called a codicil and must be signed with the same formalities. In some states, the will may refer to a memorandum disposing of tangible personal property, such as furniture, jewelry, automobiles, etc., which may be changed from time to time without the formalities of a will. In many states, a will that is formally executed with the signatures notarized is deemed to be self proved and may be admitted to probate without testimony of witnesses or other additional proof.