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Ask the Attorney: The Purpose of a Will

Q: My kids keep telling me that I need to have a will, but I never understood the point. What is a will, and why is it important to have one?

A will is a legal document that gives instructions on how to deal with your property when you die. 

Everything you own, such as your possessions, bank accounts, investments and real property, make up what is known as you restate. Your will acts as a guide so that your estate can be divided among your surviving family and loved ones according to your wishes.  

In the unfortunate event that you have minor children at the time of your death, it can also determine who will look after your children after you die.

Without a will, your estate is divided among your surviving relatives according to state law known as the law of intestacy. As long as you have surviving relatives when you die, the laws of intestacy operate to divide your estate among your family according to pre-defined guidelines. 

If, however, you have no surviving relatives when you die, and no will to say where you want your property to go, your estate will pass to the state as a last resort.

Relying on the laws of intestacy to deal with your estate has its drawbacks.  Intestacy only honors family relationships as defined by blood, adoption or marriage. 

If you want any of your property to pass to someone else, intestacy will not meet your needs. Among family members, intestacy distributes the estate following rigid rules that grant an equal share to all equally related relatives without regard for who has a greater need, or who had a closer relationship with you. 

Moreover, under intestacy, a greater proportion of your estate may be lost to estate taxes.  And if you die intestate with minor children, the courts will be forced to name a guardian with no guidance from you.

A will can address all of these problems. 

It will allow you to divide your property as you see fit among whomever you want, make allowances to reduce estate taxes, and name guardians for your minor children. 

Most importantly, having a will gives you peace of mind.  It ensures that your wishes are known, gives your family much needed guidance during an emotional time and helps you address some of life’s most worrisome “what-if’s.”

For some people, relying on the laws of intestacy might be enough. But if you own substantial assets, or like to plan ahead, drafting a will with the help of an attorney is a smart course of action.

(This article is intended as a discussion of legal topics that are often confusing to many laypeople; it is not, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. Attorney Jesse White is licensed to practice solely in Pennsylvania and any information discussed relates solely to Pennsylvania law. If you have a question for the attorney, contact The Law Office of Jesse White in Cecil at 724-743-4444 for or visit www.jessewhitelaw.com.)

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