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4 Things You Didn't Know About Wills - But Should

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Writing a last will and testament
Alamy
Most people know that if you care who gets your assets after you die, you should create a will setting out your intentions. Let's look now at several important aspects about wills that a surprisingly large number of people don't know.

1. Even in the Electronic Age, You Must Still Follow Formalities

The laws covering wills are some of the oldest on the books in most states, and one common complaint is that they've failed to keep up with the times. In an era of mobile devices and electronic documents where paper confirmation is becoming less prevalent, creating a will that a court will treat as valid still requires that you follow those often-antiquated laws precisely.

The key element in most states is that you have to sign the will in the presence of witnesses, who then will have the duty of testifying in probate court after your death that the will was validly signed. In some states, having those witnesses' signatures notarized makes it a self-proving will, eliminating the requirement of witness testimony to prove validity. In a limited number of cases, wills that are entirely handwritten can be valid without witnesses, but the requirements differ from state to state and are often full of traps for the unwary. The smartest thing to do is to look up witness requirements and follow them to the letter.

2. You Might Need a Will Even If You're Poor

Many younger couples never think to create a will because they figure that with few or no assets, they don't have anything to leave. But if you're a parent, your will is typically the place where you'll name the person you'd like to take care of your children if something happens to you. If you don't choose a guardian, then a judge will decide.

3. Didn't Update Your Will? The Law Might Do It for You

Often, when major life events happen -- such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child or the death of a close family member -- people neglect to update wills and other estate planning documents. That can lead to undesirable results in some cases, and because of that, laws in some states will effectively rewrite your will for you even if you deliberately choose to do nothing.

For instance, if you get married and don't update your will, the law in many states will grant your spouse a share of your estate at your death. Similar provisions protect children who are born after the date of an existing will, with the law assuming that you would ordinarily choose to provide for your closest family members. That makes it important that if you don't want those provisions to take effect, you must update your will and estate-planning documents after major life events take place.

4. Your Will Can't Control Who Gets Certain Assets

Many people believe that if they have a will, it will cover all of their property. But many exceptions exist.

The most common are accounts that require you to name a beneficiary, including life insurance policies and individual retirement accounts and 401(k) accounts. If you don't change your beneficiary by contacting the financial providers on those accounts, changing your will won't have any impact on where those assets go after your death. Similarly, if you own property in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship, then the other person listed as your co-owner will receive that property at your death regardless of what your will says.

Your will is an essential tool in making sure that your property goes to the people you want to receive it after your death. By keeping these simple facts in mind, you can use this tool more effectively and avoid the mistakes that can cause huge problems down the road.

You can follow Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google+.

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13 Comments

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Linda

You can probate a will yourself. No one needs an attorney for this. This is a fact and easy to do but you will pay for each step which is not much compared to hiring a law firm. Also, do a revocable trust to protect yourself and all your wishes and appoint someone to be your patient advocate and also durable power of attorney should you become unable to function. This has to be someone you can trust 100% and these days that is hard to find. You can also used Transfer Upon Death to someone on all your bank accounts and investment accounts so when you die that person just takes your death certificate to the place and accounts are turned over to that person you pick and assign. You can do all this yourself.

July 01 2014 at 2:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
brennemanbelkin

I'm at an age when all my friends are losing their parents.
Every one of them have the same story. The lawyer they hired to run the will through probate,
Stole every penny.

July 01 2014 at 9:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gmustain

The Title of this useless article should have been "4 things about wills that if you did not already know, you are an idiot".

July 01 2014 at 7:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Denise

Tell us to write a will, then tell us 'too bad', the court will decide. Freat.

July 01 2014 at 7:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Thank you GOD!

I just had a class this morning covering wills, trusts, llc, it was a continuing education class for REALTORS but applies to all , a handwritten will is accepted on NV, dated and signed and witnessed or have someone witness it,
Most lawyers will see you for zero fee to discuss the system., you should have to protct your interests, if you have a lot to leave I would suggest asking someone,, a trust may be your best friend,, since it can protect everyone and everything,,, live long, love often and smile always

June 30 2014 at 6:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Doc

Best to plan, even though they're pretty much making sure that you don't have anything to hand down.

June 30 2014 at 5:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lillian

I have a friend, whose name was on a life insurance policy and she is STILL having a problem getting the money, because of other family members. SO, what good is having something in writing, when one, still has to go through a hassle?

June 30 2014 at 4:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Lillian's comment
lora.samuels

You put clause stating anyone that contests the will is out.

July 01 2014 at 12:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lora.samuels's comment
Linda

Yes you are right Lora. Put a clause in your Will and Trust stating anyone who contests anything is out and receives nothing. You can also state in your Will a token amount for a family member who has not been a good person to you or anyone else and leave them a token of $5.00 to show you did not forget them. This is done often as well. Always make sure if you do a Trust it is Revocable so you can change it any time you wish and make Amendments when needed by you should you wish to remove someone or change things. Also, you can do a live video as well stating your wishes live.

July 01 2014 at 2:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
michaelg1444

ha ha afterlife? if you've got money when you die when 20000 innocent souls die everyday just because you didn't do a thing for them money is the last thing your silly minds and weak souls should worry about.....jesus created saint Michael to teach each one of you a lesson......and hades is just a story....id wake up and get real if your soul is of any worth.

June 30 2014 at 4:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to michaelg1444's comment
Murda

what?!?!?!?!?

July 01 2014 at 10:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
louisvan12161770

Duh! Hire a lawyer

June 30 2014 at 2:46 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
savannahswithgod

That song 'nothing from nothing' comes to mind!

June 30 2014 at 12:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply