Dissecting the contents of a will

For many people, the first thing they think of when they hear the words “estate plan” is a will. And for good reason, as it’s the cornerstone of any estate plan. But do you know what provisions should be included in a will and what are best to leave out? The answers to those questions may not be obvious.

Understanding the basics

Typically, a will begins with an introductory clause, identifying yourself along with where you reside (city, state, county, etc.). It should also state that this is your official will and replaces any previous wills.

After the introductory clause, a will generally explains how your debts and funeral expenses are to be paid. Years ago, funeral expenses were often paid out of the share of assets going to an individual’s children, instead of the amount passing to his or her spouse under the unlimited marital deduction. However, now that the inflation-adjusted federal gift and estate tax exemption has increased to $11.7 million for 2021, this may not be as critical as before.

A will may also be used to name a guardian for minor children. To be on the safe side, name a backup in case your initial choice is unable or unwilling to serve as guardian or predeceases you. 

Making specific bequests

One of the major sections of your will — and the one that usually requires the most introspection — divides up your remaining assets. Outside of your residuary estate, you’ll likely want to make specific bequests of tangible personal property to designated beneficiaries.

If you’re using a trust to transfer property, make sure you identify the property that remains outside the trust, such as furniture and electronic devices. Typically, these items aren’t suitable for inclusion in a trust. If your estate includes real estate, include detailed information about each property and identify the specific beneficiaries.

Finally, most wills contain a residuary clause. As a result, assets that aren’t otherwise accounted for go to the named beneficiaries.

Addressing estate taxes

The next section of the will may address estate taxes. Remember that this isn’t necessarily limited to federal estate tax; it can also apply to state death taxes. You might arrange to have any estate taxes paid out of the residuary estate that remains after assets have been allocated to your spouse.

Naming an executor

Toward the end of the will, the executor is named. This is usually a relative or professional who’s responsible for administering the will. Of course, the executor should be a reputable person whom you trust. Also, include a successor executor if the first choice is unable to perform these duties. Frequently, a professional is used in this backup capacity.

Turn to the professionals

Regardless of your age, health and net worth, if you want to have a say in what happens to your children and your wealth after you’re gone, you need a will. Contact us for assistance with tax-saving estate strategies and contact your attorney to help you draft your will.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The executor’s role is critical to the administration of your estate and the achievement of your estate planning objectives. So your first instinct may be to name a trusted family member as executor. But that might not be the best choice.

Duties of an executor

Your executor will have a variety of important duties, including:

  • Arranging for probate of your will (if necessary) and obtaining court approval to administer your estate,
  • Taking inventory of — and collecting, recovering or maintaining — your assets, including life insurance proceeds and retirement plan benefits,
  • Obtaining valuations of your assets if necessary,
  • Preparing a schedule of assets and liabilities,
  • Arranging for the safekeeping of personal property,
  • Contacting your beneficiaries to advise them of their entitlements under your will,
  • Paying any debts incurred by you or your estate and handling creditors’ claims,
  • Defending your will in the event of litigation,
  • Filing tax returns on behalf of your estate, and
  • Distributing your assets among your beneficiaries according to the terms of your will.

Typically, family members lack the skills and time to handle all of these tasks on their own. They’re entitled, of course, to hire accountants, attorneys, financial planners and other advisors — at the estate’s expense — for assistance. But even with professional help, serving as executor is a big job that requires a substantial time commitment during an already stressful period. Plus, if your executor is also a beneficiary of your will, other beneficiaries may view that as a conflict of interest.

Other choices

So, what are your options? One is to name a trusted advisor, such as an accountant or lawyer, as executor. Another is to appoint an advisor and a family member as co-executors. The advisor would handle most of the executor’s day-to-day responsibilities, while your family member would oversee the process and ensure that the advisor acts in your family’s best interests. (However, be aware that naming co-executors may result in delays and other issues.)

If you still haven’t decided who you should appoint at your estate’s executor, discuss the issues with us. We’d be pleased to help you make the right decision based on your circumstances.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Understanding the contents of a will

You probably don’t have to be told about the need for a will. But do you know what provisions should be included and what’s best to leave out? The answers to those questions depend on your situation and may depend on state law.

Basic provisions

Typically, a will begins with an introductory clause, identifying yourself along with where you reside (city, state, county, etc.). It should also state that this is your official will and replaces any previous wills.

After the introductory clause, a will generally explains how your debts and funeral expenses are to be paid. The provisions for repaying debt generally reflect applicable state laws.

Don’t include specific instructions for funeral arrangements. It’s likely that your will won’t be accessed in time. Spell out your wishes in a letter of instructions, which is an informal letter to your family.

A will may also be used to name a guardian for minor children. To be on the safe side, name a backup in case your initial choice is unable or unwilling to serve as guardian or predeceases you.

Specific bequests

One of the major sections of your will — and the one that usually requires the most introspection — divides up your remaining assets. Outside of your residuary estate, you’ll likely want to make specific bequests of tangible personal property to designated beneficiaries.

If you’re using a trust to transfer property, make sure you identify the property that remains outside the trust, such as furniture and electronic devices. Typically, these items won’t be suitable for inclusion in a trust. If your estate includes real estate, include detailed information about the property and identify the specific beneficiaries.

Once you’ve covered real estate and other tangible property, move on to intangible property, such as cash and securities. Again, you may handle these items through specific bequests where you describe the property the best you can.

Finally, most wills contain a residuary clause. As a result, assets that aren’t otherwise accounted for go to the named beneficiaries, often adult children, grandchildren or a combination of family members.

Naming an executor

Toward the end of the will, name the executor — usually a relative or professional — who is responsible for administering it. Of course, this should be a reputable person whom you trust. Also, include a successor executor if the first choice is unable to perform these duties. Frequently, a professional is used in this backup capacity.

Cross the t’s and dot the i’s

Your attorney will help you meet all the legal obligations for a valid will in the applicable state and keep it up to date. Sign the will, putting your initials on each page, with your signature attested to by witnesses. Include the addresses of the witnesses in case they ever need to be located. Don’t use beneficiaries as witnesses. This could lead to potential conflicts of interest. Contact us with questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Choosing the right executor — sometimes known as a “personal representative” — is critical to the smooth administration of an estate. Yet many people treat this decision as an afterthought. Given an executor’s many responsibilities and complex tasks, it pays to put some thought into the selection.

Job description

An executor’s duties may include:

  • Collecting, protecting and taking inventory of the estate’s assets,
  • Filing the estate’s tax returns and paying its taxes,
  • Handling creditors’ claims and the estate’s claims against others,
  • Making investment decisions,
  • Distributing property to beneficiaries, and
  • Liquidating assets if necessary.

You don’t necessarily have to choose a professional executor or someone with legal or financial expertise. Often, lay people can handle the job, hiring professionals as needed (at the estate’s expense) to handle matters beyond their expertise.

Candidate considerations

Many people choose a family member or close friend for the job, but this can be a mistake for two reasons. First, a person who’s close to you may be too grief-stricken to function effectively. Second, if your executor stands to gain from the will, he or she may have a conflict of interest — real or perceived — which can lead to will contests or other disputes by disgruntled family members.

If either of these issues is a concern, consider choosing an independent outsider as executor. Some people appoint co-executors — one trusted friend who knows the family and understands its dynamics, and one independent executor with business, financial or legal expertise.

Designate a backup

Regardless of whom you choose, be sure to designate at least one backup executor to serve in the event that your first choice dies or becomes incapacitated before it’s time to settle your estate — or turns down the job. Contact us for answers to your questions about choosing the right executor at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA