From ScienceWriters: Why writers need wills

By Julian Block

According to surveys taken by bar associations, only a third of all persons with property to pass after they die have wills. What happens if you’re too busy or superstitious to write a will that spells out who is to get what upon your death? When you die without a will (intestate, in legalese), your assets pass in accordance with your state’s intestacy laws.

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Each state has its own set of rules. Without exception, all of the codified rules are impersonal and inflexible. They generally favor your spouse, children, and grandchildren, and then move to parents and grandparents and to brothers and sisters.

For example, you particularly wanted to bequeath book royalties and some other assets to two favorite friends who also are writers and are struggling financially. In the absence of a will, nothing goes to them. Cue your state’s arbitrary intestacy laws; they might mandate that the royalties go to individuals whom you never intended to benefit. Or they could divvy up your assets in ways that give most of them to relatives who are already wealthy.

What’s at stake

The best way to avoid problems: Have a will. Absent that, another way is joint ownership of property (real estate or shares of stock, for example) with “the right of survivorship.” On your death, the joint owner who survives you inherits the asset. This holds true even if you subsequently wrote a will that says otherwise.

Note: Joint ownership doesn’t resolve all problems. For instance, many couples mistakenly think that they needn’t bother with wills because they own most of their property jointly. Or they think that only the husband needs a will because the property automatically goes to the wife on his death or because she has little property in her own name.

These couples don’t think about what could happen if they’re both involved in an accident; he dies immediately, and she survives for fifteen minutes. All of their holdings (bank accounts and stocks, to cite some common examples) will become hers. Because she left no will, the assets would then pass under the intestacy laws to her family. Forget the couple’s understanding, say, about setting money aside for the education of his children from a former marriage. Therefore, a husband and wife both need wills even though they own their property jointly.

The absence of a will often means that your estate will be burdened with unnecessary administrative expenses and taxes. That’s why it‘s inexcusable to put off making a will.

Keep it up to date

Make sure an existing will is up-to-date. Even if you have a will, you need to review it periodically and keep it up-to-date. Check with an attorney experienced in estate planning to see whether any changes are necessary to carry out your actual intentions and to avoid confusion, family wrangles, expensive legal fees, and unnecessary taxes during the administration of your estate.

The following are typical life events that may signal the need to go over your will. If any apply to you, contact your attorney.

  • Changes in your family status. Redo your will if you have divorced, legally separated, or married since you wrote it. Your property intentions normally change when you marry or divorce. A remarriage increases the complications, particularly when each spouse has children from previous marriages.
  • A beneficiary predeceases you. Let’s focus again on individuals designated to receive book royalties after your death. What if your will leaves them to your niece and she unexpectedly fails to outlive you? Don’t assume that your bequest to her becomes void. Unless you close that gap in your will, the royalties may end up going to someone you loathe. So be certain that your will explains clearly what you want to happen in case your niece dies before you do. Incidentally, it’s also prudent to designate contingent beneficiaries for your insurance policies, in case the primary beneficiaries you have named in policies predecease you.
  • A substantial change in your financial situation. If your estate grows or shrinks significantly, you may want to distribute it differently. Consider this situation. You drew a will that leaves book royalties to a charitable organization, with all other assets going to your children. But now, for whatever reason, your net worth has dropped significantly. Unless you change your will, the royalties must go to the charity. Only the shrunken remainder goes to your children.

Julian Block is an attorney and author based in Larchmont, N.Y. He has been cited as “a leading tax professional” (New York Times), “an accomplished writer on taxes” (Wall Street Journal) and “an authority on tax planning” (Financial Planning Magazine). For information about his books, visit julianblocktaxexpert.com.

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