What Is a Will?

A will, also known as a last will and testament, is a legally enforceable declaration of how a person wants their property and assets distributed after death. In a will, a person can also recommend a guardian for their minor children and make provisions for any surviving pets.

Understanding a Will

A will is an important component of estate planning. A will ensures that the person's wishes are carried out and can make things easier for their heirs. If an individual dies without a will, the distribution of their property is left up to the government, and may even end up becoming state property. The format of wills can vary, but most follow a fairly uniform layout.

The document usually begins with a statement that the writer is of legal age and making the will freely and without duress. It also attests to the writer's mental soundness at the time the will was made. This section establishes the writer's identity and includes an explicit statement that this final will rescinds all previous documents.

In the will the writer names an executor, who oversees the liquidation and distribution of the decedent's assets according to the terms of the will. The executor must also pay off any outstanding debts and taxes on the estate. The executor may be an attorney or financial expert, or anyone the writer of the will trusts to act responsibly. The executor may be entitled to receive a reasonable fee for services rendered. Fee guidelines may be mandated by the state.

After naming an executor and guardian for any minor children, the will should discuss insurance policies that already have a named beneficiary. Wills do not supplant agreements related to life insurance proceeds, retirement assets, or transfer-on-death investment accounts. This section may also itemize joint bank accounts and property that is co-owned with other individuals.

The bequest section of the will specifies beneficiaries for all the deceased person's property or assets, except for insurance policies and joint accounts already covered in a preceding section. Should a family's benefactor retire, it's crucial that all beneficiaries are named before they or their spouse dies in order to ensure the financial health of their loved ones. Clear and reasonable instructions are important for preventing possible legal challenges that could delay probate and create significant legal expenses.

A will may also include instructions about the writer's funeral and burial wishes. If the decedent has made prior arrangements for a burial plot or funeral expenses, those will usually be discussed in this section.

State Requirements for Wills

Most states require that the will be witnessed by two individuals and signed by the writer at the end of the document. Holographic wills may be used in some states. After death, the will is submitted to the probate court of the county or city in which the individual resided. The probate process can be fairly quick or protracted, depending on the complexity of the estate and whether there are legal challenges to the will.

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