What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

Estate Planning for Asset Distribution

Without proper planning, your will determines who inherits your property—everything from your home, car, bank accounts and personal possessions. Your spouse may not necessarily be your heir—and that’s just one of many reasons to have an estate plan.

An estate plan avoids a “default” distribution of your possessions, says the recent article “Asset distribution when we die” from LimaOhio.com.

Let’s say someone names a nephew as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The life insurance company has a contractual legal responsibility to pay the nephew, when the policy owner dies. In turn, the nephew will be required to provide a death certificate and prove that he is indeed the nephew. This is an example of an asset governed by a contract, also described as a named beneficiary.

Assets that are not governed by a contract are distributed to whoever a person directs to get the asset in their will, aka their last will and testament. If there is no will, the state law will determine who should get the assets in a process known as “intestate probate.”

In this process, when there is a last will, the executor is in charge of the assets. The executor is overseen by the probate court judge, who reviews the will and must give approval before assets can be distributed. However, the probate court’s involvement comes with a price, and it is not always a fast process. It is always faster and less costly to have an asset be distributed through a contract, like a trust or by having a beneficiary named to the asset.

If a will only provides limited instructions, the state’s law will fill in the gaps. Therefore, any assets that pass-through contracts will be distributed directly, assets noted in the will go through probate and anything else will go usually to the next of kin.

A better course of action is to have an estate attorney review all of your assets, determine who you want to receive your property and make up a plan to make this happen in a smooth, tax-efficient manner.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Aug. 22, 2020) “Asset distribution when we die”