A will, often referred to as a last will and testament, can be described as a legal document that indicates how a person (the testator) wants their estate, including any assets and property, to be distributed to beneficiaries or disposed of upon their death. A will can be used as a tool to ensure your exact wishes are carried out after you pass away. Drafting a will can enable you to do the following:
- Decide what happens to your assets or who receives certain property upon your death.
- Bequeath your assets to a spouse, heirs, relatives, and other dependents.
- Give specific instructions about how you want your estate to be administered.
- Name a trusted person (guardian) to manage the inheritance you leave for any minor children.
- Gift personal belongings to your family members.
- Give gifts to schools, non-profits, and other charitable organizations.
- Appoint an executor who will ensure that the provisions in your will are carried out after your passing.
- Choose a caretaker to care for your pets.
Types of Wills
Like most estate planning documents, there are different types of wills:
- Simple Will: A simple will allows you to decide who will receive what assets and names a guardian for minor children in the event of your passing.
- Joint Will: Two people – typically spouses – can write and execute a joint will that leaves all assets to the other spouse upon one spouse’s death. The terms of the joint will cannot be changed after one of the parties to the will passes away.
- Living Will: This type of will has nothing to do with assets. A living will is a document that outlines your end-of-life healthcare wishes and decisions.
What Assets are Commonly Inherited?
Examples of commonly inherited assets include:
- Proceeds from bank accounts, including checking and savings accounts, retirement accounts, and pension funds
- Real estate (homes and land)
- Jewelry and other tangible personal property of value
Passing Away Without a Will (Intestate)
Under Pennsylvania law, if you pass away without a will, your assets will be distributed by the Pennsylvania courts to your next of kin. However, who is alive at the time of your passing will dictate who is next in line to take your assets. If you are married at the time of your passing, your surviving spouse may inherit all your assets if your parents are not living and you do not have children.
If you have living parents and/or children at the time of your passing, your assets will be distributed in accordance with a statutory formula. The formula may seem arbitrary, but without a will that identifies your wishes, state law must use some method to divide your assets.
Probate is the process of authenticating a will. A court will review the will to determine whether the document is valid under Pennsylvania law. Any person who contests the validity of the will may appear in court to argue why the will should be considered invalid. Once a will is validated, assets will be distributed in accordance with the will’s content.
Unlike a will that specifically outlines how your assets are to be dispersed upon your passing, a trust is essentially an account that holds and manages your assets for the benefit of another, typically your children or another beneficiary of your choosing. Often, beneficiaries must meet certain conditions or requirements before acquiring your assets.