Estate Planning 101: What Is a Will?

By Cooley A. Arroyo

Estate planning is a unique area of the law because it will affect just about everyone. Many people will live their lives without seeing the inside of a court room or knowing what goes on in the purchase and sale of a business, but most of us will — at some point or another — be involved in a situation involving estate planning law. Whether helping an aging parent with her finances, creating a will to provide for your kids, or planning for retirement, estate planning touches us all, but many people still have unanswered questions about the basics. “Estate Planning 101” will answer common questions in an effort to “demystify” one of the most universal areas of the law.

What is a Will?

A “will” is one of the most recognizable terms in estate planning law, but some people are unfamiliar with the mechanics of a will. At its most basic definition, a “will” is a legal document that a person can use to ensure that certain wishes are carried out after death. Without a will, a person’s estate will be administered under the local intestacy statute.

The intestacy statute cannot be altered or adjusted to fit a person’s wishes. A will is a good option for individuals who want more control over the distribution and resolution of their estates. Wills can be drafted to outline the care of minor children or simply list “who gets what” from the china cabinet. It is a versatile document, and while some people might think that they are not “old enough” to need a will, it is an important estate planning tool for individuals of all ages.

To illustrate this concept in action, consider the following example:
Suzanne is 85 years old. She has a modest estate that includes a savings account of over $30,000 and several valuable antique heirlooms. After some reflection, she has determined that she wants her three adult children to share the money, but she also wants each of her ten grandchildren to have a special heirloom by which they can remember their grandmother.

Suzanne would be the “testatrix” of her will. In addition to describing “who gets what” from the estate, Suzanne’s will would also identify an “executor.” Upon Suzanne’s death, the executor will be responsible for filing the will with the probate court and using the proceeds of Suzanne’s estate to pay off her debts and obligations. The executor will then ensure that Suzanne’s children and grandchildren receive what she has left for them in her will. Once those duties have been taken care of, the executor will have no more responsibilities, and Suzanne’s estate will be closed.
Wills can accommodate estates of all sizes, but it is only one estate planning option available to you. To learn how a will might benefit you, or to discuss the implications of relying on the intestacy statute, contact me or any of the other Cleveland, Waters and Bass estate planning attorneys.

The next installments of this series will provide an overview of the New Hampshire intestacy statute and examine the creation of trusts.

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