Financial & Estate Planning

To ensure your will stands up it should be written, by an attorney. Wills that you write yourself, or fill-in-the-blanks preprinted wills, may not cover all of your particular circumstances. Generally, you and your spouse should have individual wills rather than joint wills, for more flexibility.

After you’ve made your will, have copies made but sign only the original. (Signing duplicates may cause technical problems.) Store the original in a safe place, such as a fireproof safe or a filing cabinet in your home or office. If you leave your will with your attorney or a relative it may be misplaced or lost.

Don’t store the original will in a bank safe-deposit box. Many states seal those boxes immediately after death, to prevent tax cheating, so there may be delays in getting the will. No matter where you keep the original copy of your will, be sure your family knows where to find it.

A competent attorney will know what belongs in a will. Nevertheless, it’s your will so you should check it carefully before signing. Here’s what to look for:

  • An introductory clause with your complete name and address. This clause should state that this is your official will, replacing any previous ones.
  • A statement of how you want your funeral expenses, debts, and any estate taxes to be paid. If part of your estate is tax-exempt and part is taxable, you’ll likely want these expenses paid out of the taxable portion, which will reduce your taxable estate.
  • Directions on how your assets will be handed down. Leaving assets to a surviving spouse is fairly simple but things may get a little more complicated when you have to decide how to leave assets to your children and their children.

Per capita means that each beneficiary receives the same amount. Suppose you plan on leaving your money to two children but one of your children dies before you, leaving two of her own children. Now you have three beneficiaries–one surviving child and two grandchildren who have lost their mother. Under a per capita arrangement, each would receive one-third of the assets to be distributed.
Per capita:

Child 33 percent

Grandchild 33 percent

Grandchild 33 percent

Per stirpes means that your assets are to be divided evenly among your children.

If your children predecease you, their children split that share. In our example, the surviving child would get 50 percent of the assets while the two children of the child who died would get 25 percent apiece.

Per Stirpes:

Child 50 percent

Grandchild 25 percent

Grandchild 25 percent

Specific Bequests–Don’t assume that your son knows that he’s to receive your stamp collection and your sister knows she’ll inherit your mother’s pearls. Spell out those bequests with enough detail so there’s no confusion.

Don’t make bequests such as, the contents of the desk in my office go to Phyllis, because you don’t know what will be there, at some future time.

A Residuary Clause–This clause states that anything not specifically mentioned in your will goes to your spouse, or to a specific child, or to someone else. Again, that will help reduce confusion.
At the end of the document, restate for the record that this is your last will, consisting of a certain number of pages. Make sure that the pages are numbered and that you initial each one. Get at least three people who aren’t beneficiaries to act as witnesses, making sure to include their addresses as well.

Keep in mind that your last will probably won’t be the final word. At certain points in your life, your will should be amended.
Births (of relatives) and deaths (of anyone named in your will) may require new wills. They same is true if you move to a new state, where the laws may be different.

In addition, you probably will want to change your will if your economic circumstances change significantly; you might inherit assets from your parents, for example. Changes in federal estate tax law might make a new will desirable.

Insight: Have your will reviewed every two years to see if it still reflects your present circumstances. When it’s time for a change, you may have to completely re-write your will or you might merely amend it by a slight modification, called a codicil. Again, consult with an attorney.