Wills

 

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 estates 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 (subject to the forced heirship laws of some states that prevent disinheriting a spouse and, in some cases, children). 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.

  1. You may designate a guardian for your minor child or children if you have survived the other parent and, by judicious use of a trust and appointment of a trustee, eliminate the need for bonds and supervision by the court regarding the care of each minor child's estate.

  2. You may designate an executor of your estate in your will and eliminate the need for a bond; in some states the designation of an independent executor will eliminate the need for court supervision of the settlement of your estate.

  3. You may choose to acknowledge or otherwise provide for a child (e.g., stepchild, godchild, etc.) in whom you have an interest, an elderly parent, or other individuals.

  4. If you are acting as custodian for the assets of a child or grandchild under the Uniform Gift (or Transfers) to Minors Act, you may designate your successor custodian and avoid the expense of a court appointment.


Good planning can also enhance your support of religious, educational, and other charitable causes.


What A Will Does Not Do


A will does not govern the transfer of certain types of assets, called non-probate property, which by operation of law or contract pass to someone else on your death. For example, real estate and other assets owned with rights of survivorship pass automatically to the surviving owner. Likewise, an IRA or insurance policy payable to a named beneficiary passes outside the will.


Jointly Owned Property


If you own property with another person as joint tenants with right of survivorship, that is, not as tenants in common, the property will pass directly to the remaining joint tenant upon your death and will not be a part of your probate estate. (It will, however, be a part of your taxable estate.) Frequently, people (particularly in old age) will cause bank accounts or securities to be placed in the name of the owner with one or more children or trusted friends as joint tenants with right of survivorship. This is sometimes done as a matter of convenience to give the joint tenant continuing access to accounts to pay bills.


It is important to realize that the ownership of property in this fashion often leads to unexpected or unwanted results. Disputes, including litigation, are common between the estate of the original owner and the surviving joint tenant as to whether the survivor's name was added as a matter of convenience and/or management or whether a gift was intended. The planning built into a well-drawn will may be partially or completely thwarted by an inadvertently created joint tenancy that passes property to a beneficiary by operation of law, rather than under the terms of the will.


Many of these problems are also applicable to institutional revocable trusts and "pay on death" forms of ownership of bank, broker, and mutual fund accounts and savings bonds. Effective planning requires knowledge of the consequences of each property interest and technique


If you'd like more information about wills, please call me at (586) 254-9200 or (248) 409-0256.


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