Who Needs a Will?

Not sure where to begin with estate planning? Determining if you need a will to manage your estate is a great place to start.

  • Estate: Simply put, your estate includes everything you own that has value such as your house, car, bank accounts, furniture, family heirlooms and any other personal belongings.
  • Will: A legal document that explains how to handle your estate after your death.

So how do you know if you need a will? To answer this question, first you'll have to get a little more familiar with Virginia's inheritance laws. These laws dictate who automatically inherits your estate if no additional instructions are given. The order of priority of inheritance is as follows:

  1. Spouse: Your surviving spouse inherits your entire estate, unless you have children from a previous marriage that are not shared with your current spouse. In those situations, your children, including any shared children, receive 2/3 of your estate. Your spouse receives the remaining 1/3 of your estate.
  2. Children: This includes immediate children, as well as descendants of any of your children who may have died before you.
  3. Parents, to the extent they are still living.
  4. Siblings, including brothers, sisters and their descendants.
  5. Extended Family: Your estate is split between the surviving family members on your mother and father's side of the family.

This is how your estate will be distributed under Virginia law if you do not have a will. If you want to change the order of priority of inheritance, or have more control over who receives certain items in your estate, you will need a will in place to provide specific instructions to your surviving family.

Some Other Common Uses for a Will

  • Distributing family heirlooms. For example, "I leave my stamp collection to my nephew, Tim, who has always admired it."
  • Giving items of your estate to someone who would not receive them otherwise under Virginia inheritance laws, such as a significant other or a close friend;
  • Donating to charity.

By no means is this is a complete list. The possibilities are near endless with a will. This powerful estate planning tool allows you to leave highly customizable, estate management instructions for your loved ones to follow after your passing.

What a Will Won't Do

All that said, there are some limitations to what a will can do. One of the most notable limitations is that a will cannot override non-probate transfer provisions. These provisions may also be referred to as rights of survivorship, pay-on-death benefits or transfer-on-death benefits.

Non-probate transfer provisions are built into the existing legal agreements for many common assets such as house deeds, car titles, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts and life insurance policies. When you pass away, these assets automatically transfer to your surviving spouse or other named beneficiaries, regardless of what your will says. It is important to familiarize yourself with the non-probate transfer provisions of your assets so you can maximize their use, and avoid putting unnecessary instructions into your will.

Our experienced estate-planning attorneys can walk you through the non-probate transfer provisions for your assets and work with you to identify any gaps that need to be addressed with a well-written will. It's never too early to be prepared. Contact us today to start managing your estate.