Category: Will

What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

We all know we are supposed to do estate planning, but not all of us get around to it. So what happens if you don’t have a will when you die? Your estate will be distributed according to state laws, which may or may not be the way you want it to be distributed.

Dying without a will is called dying “intestate.” Each state has laws that determine what will happen to your estate if you don’t have a will. If you are married, most states award one-third to one-half of your estate to your spouse, with the rest divided among your children or, if you don’t have children, to other living relatives such as your parents or siblings. If you are single, most states provide that your estate will go to your children or to other living relatives if you don’t have children. If you have absolutely no living relatives, then your estate will go to the state.

Note that any jointly held assets, such as bank accounts or houses, will go directly to the co-owner. In addition any life insurance policies or retirement accounts will go directly to the beneficiary designated on the account. And if you have a trust, any assets in the trust will go to the beneficiary designated in the trust.

One purpose of a will is to name a guardian for your young children; if you do not have a will, the court will determine who will act as guardian. The court will also appoint the person who will administer your estate. In addition, if you are unmarried, but have a partner, your partner will not inherit anything from your estate without a will naming him or her as a beneficiary.

The best way to ensure your estate is distributed the way you want it, is to plan your estate with a will and/or a trust. Contact your attorney to start planning.

What To Do When a Loved One Passes Away

Whether your spouse has just passed away or you have lost your mom or dad, the emotional trauma of losing a loved one often comes with a bewildering array of financial and legal issues demanding attention. It can be difficult enough for family members to handle the emotional trauma of a death, let alone taking the steps necessary to get these matters in order.

If you are the executor or representative of the will, you first should secure the tangible personal property, meaning anything you can touch such as silverware, dishes, furniture or artwork. Then, take your time while bills need to be paid. They can wait a week or two without any real repercussions. It is more important that you and your family have time to grieve.

When you are ready, you should meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer the will. While the exact rules of estate planning differ from state to state, the key actions include:

  • File the will and petition in probate court in order to be appointed executor.
  • Collect the assets. This means that you need to find out about everything the deceased owned and file a list of inventory with the court.
  • Pay the bills and taxes. If an estate tax return is due, it must be filed within nine months of the date of death.
  • Distribute property to the heirs. Generally, executors do not pay out all of the estate assets until the period for creditors to make claims runs out which can be as long as a year.
  • Finally, you must file an account with the court listing any income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate distributions.

While some of these steps can be avoided through trusts or joint ownership arrangements, whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns and distribute the property to the rightful heirs.

Use Your Will to Dictate How to Pay Your Debts

The main purpose of a will is to direct where your assets will go after you die, but it can also be used to instruct your heirs how to pay your debts. While generally heirs cannot inherit debt, debt can reduce what they receive. Spelling out how debt should be paid can help your heirs.

If someone dies with outstanding debt, the executor is responsible for making sure those debts are paid. This may require selling assets that you would like to leave to specific heirs. There are two types of debts you might leave behind:

  • Secured debt is debt that is attached to a piece of property or an asset, such as a car loan or a mortgage.
  • Unsecured debt is any debt that isn’t backed by an underlying asset, such as credit card debt or medical bills.

When you leave an asset that has debt attached to it to your heirs, the debt stays on the property. Your heirs can either continue to pay on the debt or sell the property to pay off the debt. If you believe this would cause a burden for your heirs, you can leave them assets in your will specifically designated to pay off the debt.

With unsecured debt, although your heirs will not have to pay off the debt personally, the executor will have to pay the debt using estate assets. You can specify in your will which assets to use to pay these debts. For example, suppose you have a valuable collectible that you want one of your heirs to have. You can specify that the executor use assets in your bank account to pay any debts before selling the collectible. And if you want to leave liquid assets, like a bank account, CD, or stocks to an heir, you should designate in your will what you would like your executor to use instead to satisfy debts.

Not everyone needs to spell out how to pay debt in a will. If your debt is negligible or your entire estate is going to just one or two people, it may not be necessary. Contact your attorney to come up with a plan for handling your debts.