If you need to consult with an attorney or would like more information on wills, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.
A Will is the cornerstone of your estate plan. It is the way that you can direct how your property will be distributed upon your death and who will be responsible for handling your affairs. A Will is not just about money. If you have young children, selecting who will raise them or manage assets you have left for them if something should happen to you is often far more important than money. A Will allows you to set forth your intentions with respect to these important decisions. If you die without a Will, you have no control over who will serve these important roles.
Pennsylvania law provides how property owned by a person who dies without a Will is to be distributed. For example, if you are married and own assets in your own name, you presumably want your spouse to receive all of your assets if something happens to you. But if you die without a Will, your spouse might have to split your assets with your children or parents. Without a Will, your minor children will receive all assets distributable to them as soon as they turn 18 years of age. A trust set up in your Will (called a “Testamentary Trust”) assures that a mature third party manages your assets until your children are mature enough and established in life to be able to handle their inheritance responsibly. Your Will can also contain a type of Testamentary Trust called a Special Needs Trust. A Special Needs Trust is designed to provide support for a child with disabilities, without disqualifying that child from certain governmental benefits (such as group home residency or nursing home care). Also, a Will is the only way to leave money or assets to a church, a charity, or a friend.
One of the most important decisions you make in your Will is the appointment of an Executor. The more heirs you have, the more important it is that you choose an Executor who is honest, who can be organized and keep good records, and who can withstand the pressures of dealing with many heirs who may have different ideas about how the estate should be administered, or who should receive specific items of personal property.
A Will allows you to set forth specific intentions regarding all of these things. A Will can be modified or revoked at any time in the event that you change your mind or your circumstances change. But just as a Will is subject to a number of technical requirements, so, too, is any modification. The last Will you execute is the one that will control upon your death.
The thought of estate planning is uncomfortable to many of us. However, consulting an attorney about estate planning allows you to review your assets and financial situation and address any special concerns you might have. It is an opportunity for you to ask questions and get answers, to learn how a Will and other things, like beneficiary designations, relate with one another and to decide how best to carry out your intentions.
Once the process is complete, you will have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your specific intentions and desires will control at the time of your death, instead of the general presumptions contained in Pennsylvania law and/or directed by a court. 2/18