A will is a legal document that makes known what your wishes are for your property after your death regardless as to how much property you have. Wills are not only for the wealthy. It is a legal document that tells the court who should receive what portion of your estate. More importantly, if you have children, your will advises the court who you want to become guardian of your underage children. It can also identify an executor who will handle all aspects of the distribution of the assets be it cash, property or family heirlooms.
If a person dies without a will, the person is considered as having died “intestate”. The distribution of the deceased's assets then becomes the responsibility of a probate court. After payment of taxes, debts, funeral expenses and administrative costs, the property goes to the surviving spouse, children and/or relatives. The law is specific as to the calculation of how property is to be distributed. This includes which relatives have priority and exactly how the property is divided. If a person has specific wishes as to who has priority over assets, especially in this day and age when more and more people live together without a formal legal marriage, it is essential that those wishes are legally memorialized as uncontestable as possible. Recent high profile cases have made this point painfully clear.
A valid will has specific requirements. The will must be dated and signed; the person signing the will must be legally competent, at least 18 years old; and the will must be witnessed by at least two individuals who are not beneficiaries. Any matter important to you should be addressed in the will.
Naming all family members and specifically identifying what portion, if any, they are to receive is important to avoid any claim that you inadvertently left someone out thus causing the will to be erroneously contested. For example, if you believe that you may have illegitimate children, it is important to state your wishes clearly. The appointment of a guardian for any minor children should be clearly stated. The will should clearly identify the executor (person responsible for carrying out your wishes and taking care of all the legal obligations associated with your death).
A will should also be updated as circumstances change (marriage, birth, divorce, death, relocation, whatever reason makes one want to alter the distribution).
The more specific, the less likely someone contesting the will can prevail.
Some states also recognize entirely handwritten wills or “holographic” wills. A holographic will does not need to be witnessed in most states as long as the handwriting can be verified. Holographic wills should be as detailed as possible.
You can find the laws that pertain to your specific state here.
This site does not offer nor is it legal advice. This site provides educational and helpful references and is designed for those two purposes only. Should you have any specific questions or concerns, contact a lawyer in your area.
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