Wills are the most common way for people to state their preferences about how their property should be handled after their death. A will is similar to an instruction booklet for the probate court, the court that oversees estate administration and disputes over the will itself. The will provides the court with guidance as to how to distribute the deceased person's assets in accordance with his or her wishes.
In and Out of Probate
Wills have been referred to as "tickets to probate court." In large estates, the only way to legally transfer assets in accordance with the will is through the probate process. However, wills only control probate assets, that is, those assets that can be transferred by the probate court. Some assets do not have to be probated and generally are not controlled by a will. These assets include:
Because these assets are transferred by means other than the probate process, a will generally does not control how they are distributed.
Example: A person names her spouse in a beneficiary designation to receive her life insurance proceeds on her death. In her will, she names her sister to receive those same proceeds. Because the proceeds are paid directly to the spouse, they never become part of the deceased person's estate. Therefore, her will, which only controls her estate, cannot override the beneficiary designation.
A will must meet certain formal requirements in order to be valid, otherwise it may be challenged during the probate process. These requirements vary from state to state. Generally, the person making the will (the "testator") must be an adult of sound mind, meaning that the testator must be able to understand the full meaning of the document. Wills must be written in most circumstances. Some states allow a will to be in the testator's own handwriting, but a better and more enforceable option is to have a typed or pre-printed document.
A testator must sign his or her own will, unless he or she is unable to do so, in which case the testator must direct another person to sign the will in the presence of witnesses, and the signature must be witnessed and/or notarized. A valid will remains in force until revoked or superseded by a subsequent valid will. Some changes may be made by amendment (a "codicil") without requiring a complete re-write.
Some legal restrictions prevent a testator from giving full effect to his or her wishes. Some laws prohibit disinheritance of spouses or dependent children. A married person cannot completely disinherit a spouse without the spouse's consent, usually in a prenuptial agreement. In most jurisdictions, a surviving spouse has a right of election, which allows the spouse to take a legally determined percentage (up to one-half) of the estate when he or she is dissatisfied with the will. Nondependent children may be disinherited, but this preference should be clearly stated in the will in order to avoid confusion and possible legal challenges.
A will usually appoints an executor or personal representative to perform the specific wishes of the testator after he or she dies. The personal representative consolidates and manages the testator's assets, collects any debts owed to the testator at death, sells property necessary to pay estate taxes or expenses, and files all necessary court and tax documents for the estate.
Dying Without a Valid Will: "Intestacy"
While wills may be "tickets" to go through the probate process, not having a will forces the probate court to distribute the property without guidance from the testator. Dying without a will leaves an estate intestate, and a probate court must step in to divide up the estate using legal defaults in order to give property to surviving relatives. A personal representative must still be appointed, but the court must choose someone rather than following the deceased person's wishes.
The court pays any unpaid debts and death expenses first, and then follows the legal guidelines. The rules vary depending on whether the deceased was married and had children, and whether the spouse and children are alive. If the intestate individual has no surviving spouse, children or grandchildren the estate is divided between various other relatives.Therefore, intestacy means that people who would never have been chosen to receive property may do so. Additionally, state intestacy laws only recognize relatives, so close friends or charities that the deceased favored do not receive anything.
If no relatives are found, the estate goes to the government in its entirety. Intestacy also poses a heavy tax burden on estate assets. When made aware of the consequences of intestacy, most people prefer to leave instructions rather than subject their survivors and property to mandated division.
Probate: Not in Every Case
Where some small estates are concerned, a will may not have to be probated. If the value of the assets in the estate is below a threshold established by state law, a short estate proceeding may avoid the probate process entirely.
Don't Go it Alone: Get Legal Help Administering an Estate
The administration of estates is complex and varies quite a bit from individual to individual -- while dying without a will complicates matters even more. If you have any particular estate administration needs, an estate planning attorney will be able to explain the process and handle the details in order to serve your family's best interests.