What exactly is a will, and what does it do?
A will is a document that disposes of a person’s property after death. In addition, it names fiduciaries, including an executor, maybe a trustee, and a guardian of your minor children. A will can spell out specific gifts (I give my engagement ring to my granddaughter Alice); charitable bequests (I leave $500 to the First Parish Church of XYZ); and dispose of whatever is left in the way that you direct.
A will comes into effect at the death of the testator (person making the will). Prior to death, the testator can change or amend their will at any time, presuming that they remain mentally competent. A will must be executed EXACTLY according to state law, there is very little wiggle room to accommodate mistakes in execution.
In Massachusetts, once you pass away, your original will must be located and presented to the probate court of the county you live in within 30 days. This is important for two reasons. The first being that someone needs to know where you keep your original documents. A safety deposit box is not a good place for an original will, unless someone else has access to it. (This means they’re “on” the safety deposit box, a notation in a power of attorney will not work once you have passed away). The second important point is that time is, as they say, “of the essence”. While probate can seem like a long process, getting started should happen pretty quickly. Once your will is filed, it becomes a public document. Under no circumstances should you put private financial information into this document! I say this because there are “do it yourself” kits that insert social security numbers into the will, which is obviously an unwise thing to do.
So here is your “to do” list:
— Think about guardians for my children
— Who would I want to be the executor of my estate?
— What charities or special bequests do I want named in my will?
— Have a will drafted by an attorney I trust
— EXECUTE MY DOCUMENTS
— Put them somewhere safe, and tell someone where they are
I will write about the other documents in a basic estate plan in later posts.