Wills And Probate
A. If you don't make a will (if you die intestate), the state will
control how your estate is divided. By making a will, you will decide the who,
what and when of the distribution of your estate. You can also make provisions
that will minimize or eliminate inheritance taxes and decide who will administer
your estate by designating an executor or personal representative. Through the
will you can also make trust provisions for minor children and set out specific
A. A codicil is an amendment or change in a will that is used to avoid
having to redo the entire will. It must be executed with the same formalities as
a will. It makes the will speak anew as of the date of the codicil.
A. Handwritten wills, called holographic wills are recognized only in
half the states. To be valid, it must be signed, dated and written by the
testator (the person making the will). It is not recommended that you rely on a
holographic will. They should only be used under circumstances where there is no
time to prepare a proper will.
A. Your estate will be distributed in accordance with your state's
intestacy laws. Generally, a portion of the estate will go to a surviving
spouse, if any, with the remainder being divided among children. If there is no
surviving spouse or child, the estate will be divided among the next closest
relatives. If there are no relatives, the property will escheat (go to) the
A. A will must be signed and dated in front of witnesses who must also
sign in front of each other. Most states require two witnesses; some require
three witnesses. A will does not have to be notarized.
A. A will should provide for payment of debts and funeral expenses,
indicate who receives property, and the name of the executor (personal
representative). Many wills provide for alternate beneficiaries (recipients of
bequests under the will) in the event a beneficiary dies before the testator
(person who makes the will). Often, trusts are established in a will.
A. A trust is a way that money or property can be given to a beneficiary
over a period of time. A will may establish a trust to receive property under a
will. The trust can provide for income to a minor until they reach a defined age
and for disposition of the trust income and principal in a variety of ways. See
the section on Trusts for a more complete discussion of this topic.
A. The Federal Government imposes estate taxes only if the estate is
valued at more than $650,000 (in 1999). Even if the estate exceeds this amount,
any money left to a surviving husband or wife is exempt from tax. Estate taxes
are imposed on a sliding scale of between 37% to 58% of a taxable estate.
A. Money and property given to a beneficiary during one's lifetime is not part of the estate and is not subject to probate. Joint accounts, that is, accounts in two or more names, also pass to the survivor of the account owners outside of probate. An "In trust for" account can be created through your bank; money in the account passes to the beneficiary upon the death of the creator of the trust account without probate. Life insurance policies that name a beneficiary also pass outside of the estate and are not subject to probate.