Make a Will While You Are Able
One of the most important decisions anyone can make is committing to write a last will and testament.
A will is part of your legacy. This legal document will ensure that the assets you have accumulated during your lifetime are distributed in accordance with your wishes. You are never too young to begin. Statistics show that 50% of our citizens do not have a will. If a person dies without a will, assets of the decedent are distributed pursuant to the Rules of Intestate Succession.
Take time to plan your estate so that your gifts will have a positive effect for your family and the community. Proper planning could reduce PA Inheritance Taxes and will also help to avoid unnecessary and expensive court proceedings.
Here is some information to keep in mind as you work through your estate planning process. Please note, however, that this information is presented for informational purposes only and is not to be considered legal advice. The information is based upon Pennsylvania law.
- What is a will?
A will is a written document, signed by a person at least 18 years of age and of sound mind, which directs the manner of distribution of assets owned by the decedent at the time of death. The will should name an executor to probate the will after death and to carry out the administration of the estate. A will may also appoint guardians of the estate of minors who will receive property under the will.
- Should everyone have a will?
Yes. It will guarantee that your lifetime accumulations are given to those persons, charities or institutions that you wish to benefit.
- Is my will on file with the Register of Wills?
Original wills are not filed with the Register of Wills until after death. Before death, wills are usually kept by the person who wrote the will. However, in some instances, the original will may be retained by the attorney who prepared the will or may be held by a bank trust department.
- What happens if you don't have a will?
An administrator can be appointed by the Register of Wills to handle the administration of the estate of a person who dies without a will. The Pennsylvania Probate Code enumerates the individuals or institutions entitled to administer an estate of a person who has died without a will. The decedent's estate is then distributed according to the Rules of Intestate Succession. The Intestate Laws name the beneficiaries and the amount to which each beneficiary is entitled. The Rules of Intestate Succession may not comport with the wishes of the decedent regarding the distribution of his assets.
- When is a will effective?
A will is in effect when signed by the person making the will but does not become operative until that person dies. A will may be revoked at any time prior to death by the execution of a subsequent will or codicil or by destruction of the will itself by the testator (the person who signed the will). The document admitted to probate will be the last will signed by the testator.
- Must a will be witnessed?
There is no requirement that a will be witnessed by anyone at the time of execution. However, after the death of the testator, two witnesses, either subscribing witnesses or non-subscribing witnesses, must verify the signature on the document as the signature of the testator. A will witnessed by subscribing witnesses at the time of execution can better survive a will contest because the testator's legal capacity to make a will can be verified more easily. Wills can be made self-proving if the testator and two subscribing witnesses sign proper acknowledgements at the time of execution. A self-proving will eliminates the necessity for witnesses to prove the execution of the will after the death of the decedent.
- When should a will be changed?
The disposition of one's property is determined by many personal factors, including family, personal relationships and interests in charities. A will should be changed when those relationships change. Examples of this could be divorce or death.
- If I am named in a will, can I simply assume responsibilities to carry out the terms of the will?
Before an individual or institution is legally qualified to take possession of the assets of a decedent, he or she must have proper authorization to administer the assets of the decedent. The Register of Wills grants this authority in a document called Letters Testamentary after the will has been probated (proven to be authentic).
- If a short certificate is needed to liquidate or receive certain assets of a decedent, can I purchase one from the Register of Wills?
Once an individual or institution has court authorization to take possession of any assets, a short certified may be required before those assets can be released. As many short certificates as necessary may be purchased from the Register of Wills Office after the formal opening of an estate.
- Does a valid will avoid Pennsylvania Inheritance Taxes?
Typically, a valid will does not avoid Pennsylvania Inheritance Taxes upon the death of the decedent. Since 2000, the Register of Wills of York County has collected and remitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue more than $427 million in Pennsylvania inheritance taxes collected from estates administered in York County.
- Must a lawyer write a will?
No. Anyone may write a will for himself or herself. However, professional assistance in writing a will is highly recommended in order to avoid errors and omissions in the document.