A will is a legally recognized tool that can be used to:
In legal terms, if you die with a valid will to govern the orderly distribution of your estate, you are considered to have died “testate.” If you have no will, the law considers that you have died “intestate.” If you died intestate, your assets will be distributed according to state intestacy laws. Under the intestacy laws of all states, spouses and children receive some priority to assets when there is no will.
If you died with a will, the will must go through the probate process, where the probate court will oversee the orderly distribution of your property, as well as the payment of debts and taxes.
The will customarily names a person to serve as the executor. The executor puts together an inventory of the assets of the estate; pays funeral expenses, taxes and debts; and then distributes the remaining property in accordance with the terms of the will.
A will may be changed as often as necessary when life circumstances change. If a minor change is needed, a page called a codicil may be added to the will indicating the change. As a general rule, though, a new will revokes all prior wills and codicils. In addition, handwritten changes on a will are typically not enforceable.
The testator generally has freedom to choose his or her heirs. The testator may disinherit heirs, including children; however, he or she may not disinherit a spouse without written agreement from the spouse. By statute, a person may receive a certain amount of his or her spouse’s property when that spouse dies. If a will does not give a spouse the amount he or she is entitled to under the law, he or she has the right to dissent from the will and receive the share provided by statute.
States vary in specific requirements to make a valid will, but these are some of the most common rules:
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