Summer is in full swing here in Seattle! Between sunny days and the Barbie movie, it’s hard to make time for paperwork – especially when that paperwork is a Last Will and Testament. August is National Make-A-Will Month, so it’s a great time to get a head start on an estate plan before life gets busy again in the fall. Below are some questions and answers to help de-mystify this important estate planning tool.
Why do I need a Will?
A Will does much more than simply distribute your assets. With a Will, you can also name a personal representative, or executor, who will handle your assets after your death, including paying debts and expenses and ensuring your instructions are followed. A Will also allows you to nominate guardians to care for your minor children.
Creating a Will can be a gift to our loved ones in the long run. In the absence of a Will, it can be confusing and overwhelming for family members to decide how to handle an estate. Making a Will gives you an opportunity to include your wishes and instruction, and can make the estate administration process easier for your loved ones.
What happens if I don’t have a Will?
In Washington State, when a person dies without a Will, they are considered to have “died intestate.” This means their assets will have to go through probate court and will be distributed according to state law. Washington’s intestacy laws pass assets first to a surviving spouse. If there is no surviving spouse, then assets pass to children. If there are no children, the assets go to parents, then grandparents, then siblings, and other relatives. Under these laws, all heirs will inherit equal shares of the estate.
It’s worth noting that these laws only pass to people who have blood or legal relationship to the decedent. For people who wish to leave assets to other loved ones, charities, or other entities, a Will is a key tool.
Additionally, dying intestate means that anyone – including your creditors – can petition the court to be appointed as the representative or executor of your estate. The court will grant someone the authority to collect and distribute your assets. Without a Will, you do not get to choose who that person is.
Does a Will cover all of my assets?
Wills only cover certain assets. Assets that have a designated external beneficiary (like life insurance, some retirement accounts) are not covered by a Will. It’s important to make sure that you update the names of beneficiaries on these types of pay-on-death assets. These types of assets do not have to go through the probate court process in order to be transferred to the beneficiary.
Does a Will have to go through court when I die?
Not necessarily. Washington State law requires that a Will has to be filed with the court after someone dies, but it does not mean that a probate has to be opened. Probate is the process in which the court oversees the handling and distribution of a decedent’s estate. Each state’s probate process is slightly different. In Washington State, the probate process typically can take six months to a year, depending on complexity.
A probate is usually opened when there are titled assets that need to be retitled and distributed (such as a house or vehicle) or if there is conflict over an estate. The probate process does not happen automatically, and someone must initiate the process by filing a petition with the court. Again, Washington State laws do not require a probate for every estate, and it is possible to avoid this process through simple estate planning tools.
Can I handwrite my Will on a napkin, sign it with no one around, and still have it be valid?
No. Whether it’s on a napkin or fancy paper, Washington does not recognize Wills which are handwritten and signed only by the testator (known as a “holographic will”). Your Will must be in writing, signed by you, AND witnessed either by two adult witnesses or a notary, who also must sign your Will. Without the witness requirement being met, a Will may not be considered valid in Washington State.
I made a Will in another state and moved to Washington. Do I need to redo it?
Not necessarily. Washington will honor estate documents created in other states so long as those documents meet all the legal requirements of the state where it was made. That said, if you plan to reside in Washington, it’s important to have documents that reflect the laws of this state. An attorney can help you update an existing Will so that it reflects your current state of residence.