Eventually, we all die. A will is a legal document that specifies what should happen to your body and your earthly possessions after you die. Your loved ones should not need to second-guess your intentions.
If you die without a will (intestate), your state has its own laws and it will divide up your possessions for you under their “rules of intestate succession.”
Some states will accept a “holographic” (handwritten) will and others won’t. If you have your will signed by two witnesses, and your assets go through Probate, which can take 6 months to 2 years, those witnesses must go into Probate Court to testify that they saw you sign the document and you were of sound mind at the time.
To avoid searching for witnesses after your demise (who could have moved or died after you signed the document), you should take your will to a local notary and have your witnesses sign in his/her presence in advance. This is an “affidavit of the will” (which is not required by every state). Then you do not need them to go through Court later. Even with a will, many items must go through Probate. (To avoid Probate, you can create a “revocable trust” instead of a will.) Check out www.suzeorman.com for comprehensive information about wills, trusts, etc.
Everybody has something they leave behind. Some things have greater sentimental value to one over another. Your will states exactly who gets what, even pets.
Plan ahead for guardianship for minor children. State your wishes.
Some states allow you to write a “non-testamentary letter” to the executor and mention specific amendments, called “codicils.” This is an informal declaration that can be dated and changed at any time. Your last dated letter will be the one to be followed.
Usually, if you’re married, you give everything to your spouse. What if you die in an accident together? There must be contingencies built into your will.
Someone must handle your estate after you’re gone. As the testator, you must assign an executor (or, if female, an executrix) of your estate, which is often your spouse. Because of contingencies, you also need a second choice. This could be a child if he/she is not a minor, or someone else you really trust.
The most important part of the estate – what is left after all claims, debts, and bequests are satisfied – is called the “residue of the estate.” It includes the house, bank accounts, savings bonds and financial accounts.
Tangible personal property is property without a legal title, that is, property not specifically owned by someone on any document. This includes: clothing, furniture, jewelry, computers, appliances, and autos (the exception to the rule), which usually goes to your spouse, if he/she survives you.
If your spouse dies before or within 30 days after you, the estate will go on to your next listed beneficiary, or beneficiaries, usually your children. The state assumes you intended to leave something to each child, if there is more than one. If you wish to disinherit one, you must mention that. Then you decide if the others share equally or proportionately.
Your executor will also make decisions about how to handle your remains: Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you want to be embalmed? (Not all states require it.) Discuss your personal preferences ahead of time with your executor.
If your state allows you to authorize “informal” or “unsupervised” administration, you can bypass Probate when you transfer certain assets. For example, your executor will have the administrative power to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and transfer the ownership of a car quickly, without the Probate Court getting involved (which could take months).
Everyone should have, at the least, a simple will. It is a thoughtful act of loving duty that we perform for those we leave behind.