What Is A Will?

Last will and testament documents

A will is a written declaration of an individual’s intentions for the deposition of property after death. Property can be tangible items, such as houses, cars, or appliances. It can also refer to intangible items that carry the promise of future worth, such as stock and bond certificates.

The person responsible for carrying out the plan outlined in the will is called the executor or personal representative. It is important for an individual to select the executor carefully. Individuals should choose a person who is trustworthy, capable, and willing to serve in this capacity.

A will does not direct the disposition of all of a person’s property. Some property passes outside the will, such as jointly held property, life insurance payable to a named beneficiary, or an individual retirement account (IRA) with a named beneficiary.

The Purpose of a Will

In addition to providing a plan for the disposition of property, a will helps estate owners:

  • Minimize or avoid estate charges, such as taxes, administration expenses, and shrinkage of assets
  • Bequeath (meaning to leave or pass on) specific assets (e.g., family heirlooms) to appropriate heirs
  • Make bequests to charity
  • Nominate an executor or personal representative to carry out the terms of the will during the probate process
  • Grant the executor specific powers that are otherwise unavailable under state law (e.g., the power to continue operating the decedent’s business)
  • Make the best use of the unified credit and the unlimited charitable and marital deductions
  • Provide income for the care of a mentally or physically handicapped child, parent, or spouse
  • Describe how estate settlement costs are to be paid, so they are not charged against particular heirs or bequests
  • Nominate a guardian for minor dependent children if there is no surviving parent

Ideally, an individual’s will should be printed and signed in accordance with state law. Most states require that two adults witness the execution of a will.

Is an Attorney Necessary?

It’s certainly possible for a person with a simple estate to create a will that meets a state’s legal formalities without the help of an attorney. However, if a person has a more complex estate (e.g., owns a business), the help of an attorney may be prudent.

An attorney’s knowledge and expertise can ensure not only that a will is valid, but that it expresses the desires of the testator (the person making the will) clearly and accomplishes everything the testator desires. An attorney can:

  • Answer questions about the will and provide suggestions for distributing property
  • Assist with the tax planning aspects of a will
  • Discuss questions about the business, such as rights of surviving owners
  • Explain various trusts and discuss whether they could be beneficial to the testator’s situation
  • Put the testator’s mind at ease that the will is valid and meets all legal requirements

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