What Is a Will?

A Will, sometimes called a “Last Will and Testament,” is a document that sets forth your final wishes regarding the distribution of your property and the care of any minor children.  Creating a Will gives you the sole discretion over the distribution of your assets. It lets you decide how your belongings, such as cars or family heirlooms, should be distributed.  If you have a business or investments, your Will can direct the smooth transition of those assets.

If you have minor children, a Will lets you provide for their care.  If you have children from a prior marriage, even if they are adults, your Will can dictate the assets they receive.  Creating a Will also minimizes tensions between survivors.

A Will also lets you direct your assets to the charity of your choice.  If you wish to leave your assets to an institution or an organization, a Will can see that your wishes are carried out.

What Doesn’t It Cover?

There are a variety of items that are not covered by the instructions in a Will, although they generally address the bulk of your assets.  These items include community property, proceeds from life insurance policy payouts, retirement assets, assets owned by joint tenants with rights or survivorship and investment accounts that are designated as “transfer on death”.

What Happens If I Don’t Have One?

If you do not have a Will, you die intestate.  In such a case, the state will oversee the distribution of your assets.  Contrary to popular opinion, the state does not inherit your assets, but decides who will inherit your property.

How a Will Works

Once a person dies, his or her assets become part of an “estate.”  An personal representative, called an “executor” is named, and that person is responsible for making sure that the Will is carried out as written and that the assets are distributed as directed.  The executor can also hire a lawyer to do this job.  You can also name an alternate person, in case the first choice is unable or unwilling to act.

Name Beneficiaries to Get Specific Property

You can specify what possessions you want to go to what people.  These are called beneficiaries.  You may choose different people to inherit real estate, personal property, or even cash.  The Will should also specify whether the assets are to go directly to beneficiaries or whether they should be sold and the value divided among the beneficiaries.  If the beneficiaries don’t survive, alternate beneficiaries should also be named  with instructions on what should happen to your assets.

Specify How Debts, Expenses and Taxes Should Be Paid

Your will should spell out your wishes regarding how to settle debts and final expenses, such as funeral and probate costs, as well as estate and inheritance taxes.  In some cases, a person will name a specific source, such as a bank account, to cover these costs.

Cancel Debts Others Owe

You can also state in your Will that people who owed you money, must pay that debt — along with any interest that accumulated on it — to your survivors, or beneficiaries.

Indicate Instructions for Maintaining Real Estate

If you name someone to keep your house, you should list any specific instructions for it’s care and maintenance.

Name a Caretaker for Pets

The law considers pets to be property.  To ensure that any of your pets has a good home, your should name someone in the Will who will take possession of the pet.  You can also leave that person an amount of money to help cover the expenses of caring for the pet.

What Do I Do With It Once It’s Done?

Creating your Will is the first step in a two-step process.  The second step is putting your Will in the hands of your executor or professional advisor.  Remember, your wishes can only be carried out if they are known.  Putting you will in capable hands ensures that it will be available when it is needed.

Making a Will is a necessary and fairly simple process that can save your family time, money and grief, as well as give you peace of mind.  If you or a loved one does not have a Will, the time is now to have one completed.  Please call our office to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced CELA* attorneys at 314/962-0186.

*Certified Elder Law Attorney, as certified by the National Elder Law Foundation, the only organization approved by the American Bar Association to offer certification in the area of elder law.