A critical question that your Financial Advisor should ask a client is “Do you have a Will?” While no one likes thinking about dying and would rather avoid the subject, having a Will—or an updated Will—is very important to most everyone.
So, why do I need a Will? The simple answer is having control. If you die without a Will (this is called dying intestate), your final affairs will be handled by an Executor appointed by a Court rather than someone that you have chosen. If you have children under the age of majority (18), then a Court, rather than you, will determine who the Guardian of those children will be. Those appointments may not be who you would have wanted.
If you die without a Will, the assets that you own alone will be distributed according to intestate succession laws in the state in which you reside. Assets owned jointly would pass to the surviving co-owner whether or not you have a Will. Similarly, some assets, such as retirement accounts, life insurance proceeds, transfer or payable-on-death accounts will pass to the beneficiaries you have named. However, even if all your assets are held jointly, the question of Guardians would still argue for having a Will.
Consider what might happen if, for example, you are divorced and not remarried. If your ex-spouse is still living, a Court may grant custody of your children to your ex-spouse. Perhaps you would not want this to happen, or you would prefer your parents or a sibling to be their guardian. Only having a valid Will would ensure your preference. Your ex-spouse may also be named as Conservator of property that goes to your children but which they cannot receive because they are minors. If the ex-spouse does not handle the inheritance wisely, your children may have nothing left by the time they reach the age of majority. Having a valid Will would avoid this.
Intestacy laws are set by Statute, for better or worse. In New York, for example, a spouse inherits the first $50,000 plus one-half of the remaining assets, with the children (or their children, if a child has predeceased you) inheriting the other half. Now, if for some reason you had given more to one child than another and wanted to equalize that situation at your death, a formulated intestate inheritance would not accomplish that. Likewise, if for some reason you wanted to disinherit someone who would otherwise receive an inheritance, only a valid Will would do so.
You may wish to keep your family wealth within the family bloodline. If you were unmarried, upon your death, your wealth would go to your children. Then, if one of your children were to die, their spouse may receive your full inheritance. This may or may not be your wish and only a valid Will would avoid this.
It should be noted that if you provide in your Will for specific bequests (like who is to receive Mom’s jewelry, or Grandpa’s books, etc.), you can avoid potentially messy and contentious situations among your family members.
Finally, even if you have a Will, it is well-advised to review it periodically with a qualified attorney. Changes in life, such as children, marriage or divorce, changes in health, and business ownership are reasons to review an existing Will. A candid and open discussion of these changes with your attorney could avoid unforeseen and unintended consequences.
Contributed by Christopher Loughridge. Chris has been with Chemung Canal since May 2007 as a Vice President and Portfolio Manager in our Wealth Management Group.
For additional guidance, please contact Marci Cartwright at 607-737-3754 or firstname.lastname@example.org.