A will is a legal document that establishes what should happen to a person’s property in the event of their passing. The person writing the will, known as the testator, can specify how assets should be divided and who should be managing them. Without this document, it will be up to the court to determine who inherits the deceased person’s property, which may not be in line with their wishes. An individual can choose to draft their own will, but working with an experienced estate lawyer can help ensure that their instructions are clear and that the will is valid.
Importance of Wills
Writing a will can accomplish a number of things, including:
- Naming an executor
- Naming heirs and distributing property among them
- Determining how debts and taxes will be paid
- Making arrangements for specific items, such as family heirlooms
- Ensuring care for pets
- Serving as a backup to a person’s living trust, if he or she has one
A will is not an opportunity to set forth conditions that heirs must fulfill for inheritance, provide instructions for their final arrangements, or bequeath assets to pets. The terms set forth in the will have no effect on the testator’s property prior to his or her death, and the testator can change or revoke the will at any time.
A will is especially important for parents of young children. Parents typically use a will to determine who will assume guardianship of their children if they should pass. It is also an opportunity to specify who will manage the children’s inheritance until they are old enough to receive it and at what age they will be allowed to manage it themselves. In the absence of a will, a judge will have to appoint a guardian for minors. Although it is always their intention to act in the children’s best interests, their decision may not be in line with the wishes of the parents.
What Happens Without a Will
Many people wonder if they need a will. Some are not sure if they have enough assets to require a will. Some may have misconceptions about how wills work, believing that their heirs will need to go through an expensive probate process. Some may prefer not to think about it at all. In order to ensure that a person’s final wishes are carried out, however, it is important to document them regardless of the size of the estate.
The absence of a valid will can cause confusion and make the process of inheritance expensive and time-consuming. In some cases, the distribution of assets can be handled informally by a close family member, but most cases will need to be overseen by a probate court. The court will assign an administrator, who often has to pay some sort of surety bond. Property will be distributed in accordance with the state’s intestacy statutes, usually following a line of succession starting with the spouse and any surviving children.
Unmarried partners and friends of the deceased are excluded from inheritance under intestacy law. Assets must go to a relative and cannot be given to a charity or other organization. Any person who is criminally responsible for the deceased person is ineligible for inheritance, as is any parent who abandoned or refused to support a child if that child passes away. If no eligible relative can be found, assets are turned over to the state.
Creating a Valid Will
A basic will is usually fairly straightforward. State law varies slightly as to what is considered legally valid, but essentially one must:
- Be of sound mind, which is defined as knowing what property one has and what it means to leave it to someone
- Write a document that names beneficiaries for that property
- Sign the document
- Have the document signed by two witnesses
It is not necessary to have a will notarized, but in some cases this extra step may make it easier to push the document through probate.
There are some circumstances that can complicate a will, such as:
- Naming multiple executors
- Creating trusts for children
- Disinheriting a spouse, child, or other relative
- Making provisions for pets
Additionally, there are some types of assets that cannot be passed through a will, including life insurance, property governed by a living trust, jointly-held property, or retirement or stock accounts with a named beneficiary. For these assets, a person must add or change the beneficiary on the account itself in order to ensure it is passed to the right person.
West Chester Wills and Estates Lawyers at Eckell Sparks Provide Comprehensive Estate Planning Services
In order to ensure that your wishes are carried out as you intended, it is important to consult an experienced wills and estates lawyer. The West Chester wills and estates lawyers at Eckell, Sparks Levy, Auerback, Monte, Sloane, Matthews & Auslander, P.C. have been helping clients administer their estates for over 50 years. Our legal team understands the complexities of Pennsylvania estate law and will help you draft a will that meets your needs and protects your legacy.
With offices conveniently located in Media and West Chester, Pennsylvania, we provide estate solutions for clients throughout Delaware County, Chester County, and Montgomery County, all of the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Call us today at 610-565-3701 or contact us online to speak to an experienced Media wills and estates lawyer.