Wills are the most common way for people to state their preferences about how their estates should be handled after their deaths. Many people use their wills to express their deepest sentiments toward their loved ones. A well-written will eases the transition for survivors by transferring property quickly and avoiding many tax burdens.
Despite these advantages, many estimates figure that at least seventy percent of Americans do not have valid wills. While it is difficult to contemplate mortality, many people find that great peace of mind results from putting their affairs in order.
Wills vary from extremely simple single-page documents to elaborate volumes, depending on the estate size and preferences of the person making the will (the “testator”). Wills describe the estate, the people who will receive specific property (the “devisees”), and even special instructions about care of minor children, gifts to charity, and formation of posthumous trusts. Many people choose to disinherit people who might usually be expected to receive property. For all these examples, the testator must follow the legal rules for wills in order to make the document effective.
Formal requirements for wills vary from state to state. You can learn more about state-specific laws on our wills law answer page. Generally, the testator must be an adult of “sound mind,” meaning that the testator must be able to understand the full meaning of the document. Wills must be written. Some states allow a will to be in the testator’s own handwriting, but a better and more enforceable option is to use a typed or pre-printed document. A testator must sign his or her own will, unless he or she is unable to do so, in which case the testator must direct another person to sign the will in the presence of witnesses, and the signature must be witnessed and/or notarized. A valid will remain in force until revoked or superseded by a subsequent valid will. Some changes may be made by amendment (called a “codicil”) without requiring a complete rewrite.
Some legal restrictions prevent a testator from giving full effect to his or her wishes. Some laws prohibit disinheritance of spouses or dependent children. A married person cannot completely disinherit a spouse without the spouse’s consent, usually in a pre-nuptial agreement. In most jurisdictions, a surviving spouse has a right of election, which allows the spouse to take a legally-determined percentage (up to one-half) of the estate when he or she is dissatisfied with the will. Non-dependent children may be disinherited, but this preference should be clearly stated in the will in order to avoid confusion and possible legal challenges.
Some property may not descend by will. Property owned in joint tenancy may only go to the surviving joint tenant. Also, pensions, bank accounts, insurance policies and similar contracts that name a beneficiary must go to the named party.
Appointing a Representative
A will usually appoints a personal representative (or “executor”) to perform the specific wishes of the testator after he or she passes on. The personal representative need not be a relative, although testators typically choose a family member or close friend, as well as an alternate choice. The chosen representative should be advised of his or her responsibilities before the testator dies, in order to ensure that he or she is willing to undertake these duties. The personal representative consolidates and manages the testator’s assets, collects any debts owed to the testator at death, sells property necessary to pay estate taxes or expenses, and files all necessary court and tax documents for the estate.
Choosing a Guardian
Testators who have minor or dependent children may use a will to name a guardian to care for their children if there is no surviving parent to do so. If a will does not name a guardian, a court may appoint someone who is not necessarily the person whom the testator would have chosen. Again, a testator usually chooses a family member or friend to perform this function, and often names an alternate. Potential guardians should know they have been chosen, and should fully understand what may be required of them. The choice of guardian often affects other will provisions, because the testator may want to provide financial support to the guardian in raising surviving children.
When No Valid Will Exists
If a person dies without a valid will and did not make alternative arrangements to distribute property, survivors may face a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive legal process. Dying without a will leaves an estate “intestate,” and a probate court must step in to divide up the estate using legal defaults that give property to surviving relatives. The court pays any unpaid debts and death expenses first, then follows the legal guidelines.
The rules vary depending on whether the deceased was married and had children, and whether the spouse and children are alive. If the intestate individual has no surviving spouse, children, or grandchildren, the estate is divided between various other relatives. Therefore, intestacy may mean that people who would never have been chosen to receive property will, in fact, be entitled to a portion of the estate. Additionally, state intestacy laws only recognize relatives, so close friends or charities that the deceased favored do not receive anything.
If no relatives are found, the estate typically goes to the state or local government. Intestacy also poses a heavy tax burden on estate assets. When made aware of the consequences of intestacy, most people prefer to leave instructions rather than subject their survivors and property to government-mandated division.
Get Legal Help with Your Will
Even if you’re not too concerned about what happens to your remains or your belongings after you die, keep in mind that your surviving family members will have to make these arrangements in your absence. Without a will, the process can be expensive and unnecessarily tedious. It makes sense to write a will while you’re relatively healthy and of sound mind. Get started today by contacting an estate planning lawyer, call the Law Firm of Figeroux & Associates, at 855-768-8845.
TOP Ten Reasons to Have a Will
Having a will is arguably one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your family. Not only can a will legally protect your spouse, children, and assets, it can also spell out exactly how you would like things handled after you have passed on. While each person’s situation varies, here are the top ten reasons to have a will.
1. You decide how your estate will be distributed. A will is a legally-binding document that lets you determine how you would like your estate to be handled upon your death. If you die without a will, there is no guarantee that your intended desires will be carried out. Having a will helps minimize any family fights about your estate that may arise, and also determines the “who, what, and when” of your estate.
2. You decide who will take care of your minor children. A will allows you to make an informed decision about who should take care of your minor children. Absent a will, the court will take it upon itself to choose among family members or a state-appointed guardian. Having a will allows you to appoint the person you want to raise your children or, better, make sure it is not someone you do not want to raise your children.
3. To avoid a lengthy probate process. Contrary to common belief, all estates must go through the probate process, with or without a will. Having a will, however, speeds up the probate process and informs the court how you’d like your estate divided. Probate courts serve the purpose of “administering your estate”, and when you die without a will (known as dying “intestate”), the court will decide how to divide estate without your input, which can also cause long, unnecessary delays.
4. Minimize estate taxes. Another reason to have a will is that it allows you to minimize your estate taxes. The value of what you give away to family members or charity will reduce the value of your estate when it’s time to pay estate taxes.
5. You decide who will wind up the affairs of your estate. Executors make sure all your affairs are in order, including paying off bills, canceling your credit cards, and notifying the bank and other business establishments. Because executors play the biggest role in the administration of your estate, you’ll want to be sure to appoint someone who is honest, trustworthy, and organized (which may or may not always be a family member).
6. You can disinherit individuals who would otherwise stand to inherit. Most people do not realize they can disinherit individuals out of their will. Yes, you may wish to disinherit individuals who may otherwise inherit your estate if you die without a will. Because wills specifically outline how you would like your estate distributed, absent a will your estate may end up on the wrong hands or in the hands of someone you did not intend (such as an ex-spouse with whom you had a bitter divorce).
7. Make gifts and donations. The ability to make gifts is a good reason to have a will because it allows your legacy to live on and reflect your personal values and interests. In addition, gifts up to $13,000 are excluded from estate tax, so you’re also increasing the value of your estate for your heirs and beneficiaries to enjoy. Be sure to check the current laws for your year to learn the most up-to-date gift tax exclusions.
8. Make gifts and donations. The ability to make gifts is a good reason to have a will because it allows your legacy to live on and reflect your personal values and interests. In addition, gifts up to $13,000 are excluded from estate tax, so you’re also increasing the value of your estate for your heirs and beneficiaries to enjoy. Be sure to check the current laws for your year to learn the most up-to-date gift tax exclusions.
9. Because you can change your mind if your life circumstances change. A good reason for having a will is that you can change it at any time while you’re still alive. Life changes, such as births, deaths, and divorce, can create situations where changing your will are necessary.
10. Because tomorrow is not promised. Procrastination and the unwillingness to accept death as part of life are common reasons for not having a will. Sometimes the realization that wills are necessary comes too late – such as when an unexpected death or disability occurs. To avoid the added stress on families during an already emotional time, it may be wise to meet with an estate planning lawyer to help you draw up a basic estate plan at the minimum before it’s too late. Be sure to read What Not To Include When Making a Will for more wills information.
Talk to an attorney about the reasons you should have a will, call the Law Firm of Figeroux & Associates, at 855-768-8845.