By Chris Miller, Esq.
After the initial shock and loss of losing a loved one, families ask questions about the mechanics of asset transfer. What happens to the house? What happens to the life insurance and retirement accounts? The answers to those questions are sometimes found in a Will that the decedent has signed and stored in a safe place, but they are more often determined by planning steps outside the Will. Beneficiary designations and asset titles play a big role in how property is dealt with at death. That is because a Will only controls “probate” assets. Probate assets are resources owned by an individual without a beneficiary designation at the time they die.
A house, for example, might transfer to a joint owner without claim of any other family member if the Deed was written as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship.” Likewise, a retirement account or an insurance policy gets paid to the beneficiary designated on that account, even if a Will signed later tries to steer those assets to someone else. These unintended consequences can cause hurt feelings and resentment among family members that lasts for decades.
Avoiding those hurt feelings means expressing an intent in consistent and multiple ways. In addition to having an updated Will, it helps to double check your beneficiary designations and review the language of the deeds to your properties. A Will can provide big picture instructions to an Executor you know will be fair and professional. Beyond the Will, though, you should also guide your Executor about how to distribute your personal effects and who to call after you pass away. That guidance is best done in a separate letter that does not become part of the public record when the Will gets filed for probate.