A Last Will and Testament is a document you create to instruct how you want your property distributed upon your death. Who gets what remains in your name? Should any assets be held in trust? Who gets the house? Who gets which antiques? Who gets a bank account? Who takes care of the pets? These are just some of the questions upon which a Will answers and instructs, and just some of the information we will obtain to draft a solid Last Will and Testament that can stand up in probate and prevent challenges to its validity.
Our estate planning attorneys in Pennsylvania will review your assets and discuss with you what you want with regard to your estate. Making sure your goals for today and tomorrow are met is our personal goal at Creenan & Baczkowski, PC. Contact us online or at 724-733-8832 to learn more about wills specifically and estate planning generally so that you and your heirs do not get surprised in a way that is to your detriment.
What is the Purpose of a Will in Pennsylvania?
The person creating a Will is known as a testator. The testator devises property and assets to named beneficiaries in a Will. This gives testators far more control over assets – both while they are alive and after they pass away.
As such, the Will serves four general but important purposes:
- They allow property owners to control what happens to their belongings, even after they die.
- They incentivize productivity by allowing people to control what happens to their property after death.
- They protect the decedent's heirs, including minor children by appointing a guardian.
- They allow you to appoint who you want to oversee the estate.
In order for the Will to work as intended, it must adhere to proper procedures in accordance with state law.
General Requirements of a Will in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties
Each state's requirements of a Will and what makes it valid may differ, but all states have four requirements that are true no matter what.
- The testator must have testamentary intent, meaning the testator subjectively intended to create the Will.
- The testator must have testamentary capacity, meaning that they understood they were creating the Will at the time of its execution.
- The Will must have been executed without the interference of fraud, duress, undue influence, or mistake.
- The Will must have been duly executed through a proper ceremony––for example, signing the Will and having witnesses per your state's law were completed properly.
Pennsylvania recognizes the concept of a self-proving Will, meaning the probate process will not require the appearances of the witnesses to the Will provided the Will is properly executed, witnessed, and notarized.
Intestacy: The "Default" Method if You Die Without a Will
If someone dies without a Will, this is known as dying "intestate." Should a person die intestate, the Commonwealth's Probate, Estate and Fiduciaries Code determines how your estate will be distributed. There are two key reasons to create a Will, rather than relying on intestacy laws to devise your property, and the reasons relate to family and probate matters. The intestacy laws can create surprising results, including limiting what a spouse will receive and including some heirs that you might not select.
Intestacy laws aim to pass property in a way that most people would want it to pass, which basically means any property is passed to immediate family members first, like children, then parents, siblings, grandparents, and so on. Intestacy laws only benefit you if you are happy about your hard-earned property going to your immediate family member.
The problem here is that if you have stopped a relationship with a family member, that may not be taken into consideration when the intestacy laws take effect. This could result in property, (or even the custody of a minor child) passing to a relative whom you would not wish to be a beneficiary and/or guardian.
Property governed by intestacy law must pass through probate court, first, which can be expensive and time-consuming, leaving fewer benefits and more burdens for your loved ones. That said, a valid Will also goes through probate to implement its provisions. The only difference is a well-crafted last will and testament will go through probate rather quickly and without incident because it's harder for someone to challenge it.
Further, there are other ways to distribute property according to your wishes while also avoiding probate completely. Speaking with an estate planning lawyer will help you determine what will work best in your specific situation and with your specific assets.
The Risks of “Do-It-Yourself” Wills in Pennsylvania
The expense and lack of control that comes from dying intestate, coupled with the perceived costs of hiring a lawyer to write a will, has led to a huge increase in the use of “do-it-yourself” wills. These forms, often found online for a fee, claim to be just as good as a traditional will prepared by an experienced attorney.
These "one size fits all" documents, however, are not tailored to your unique circumstances. The process to create a DIY will is often accompanied by mistakes that open the door for challenges to the validity of a Will upon your death. In fact, a court may dismiss the Will completely.
If you decide to try a DIY Will first, Don't. Your surviving spouse and family will be surprised. Why take that chance?
Contact an Attorney for Wills in Pennsylvania
If you are considering making a Last Will and Testament, make sure that you comply with the law and provide very specific instructions in the will. At Creenan & Baczkowski, PC, our estate planning attorneys help clients in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties create Wills that comply with Pennsylvania laws so you don't have to worry about it. We know how hard you worked for your assets and understand why it is so important to distribute your assets in the way you see fit to do it. Contact us by filling out the online form or calling us directly at 724-733-8832.