Once you have taken the all-important first step of deciding upon the potential administrators of your estate, and have ensured the willingness of your choices to act in that capacity for your last will and testament, you must prepare to set out your beneficiaries. The question of who gets what seems fairly straightforward, and in most cases, it is. However, there are some things to consider before you make the final decisions.
First and foremost in your consideration are your spouse and children. The vast majority of couples will each arrange their own affairs so as to leave everything to the surviving spouse. To address the possibility of a husband and wife conceivably passing away together, or within a short time of each other, alternate beneficiaries should be named. Most commonly, this would be an equal division of the residue of the estate among the children of the couple. A provision may be included to address the possibility of the death of a child of the couple before the parents whereby that child’s issue (children) may inherit the allotted gift instead. This would mean that if your son or daughter died before you, your grandchildren would inherit that share.
If your children are young at the time of the writing of your will, additional instruction regarding the distribution of funds should be included for the guidance of the executor/executrix. Parents may feel that an individual child must reach a particular age before the inheritance is released to him or her. For example, the parents may instruct the executor/executrix that the inheritance is to be held in trust until the child reaches the age of 25 years.
It is important to note that once a husband or wife has predeceased the other, the surviving spouse may choose to make changes to the beneficiaries of his or her own will independently, as circumstances change. This means that the spouse who inherits everything is under no obligation to follow through with the alternate beneficiaries named in your original will. Therefore, if you have in mind personal gifts that are important to you, they should be included in your will in the area of specific bequests. Merely telling someone that you want him or her to have a particular item or amount very rarely works out that way in the end.
To divide assets equally among a number of beneficiaries, rather than try to put a dollar figure on an equal share of the estate, the wording of the bequest should make reference to shares in, or percentage of, the residue of the estate. This means that after the debts of the estate (credit card bills, loans, taxes, etc.) have been settled by the executor/executrix, and any specific bequests carried out, the value of the remainder of the estate will be calculated, divided into the specified amounts, and distributed accordingly. If a specific bequest is made to one of the individuals receiving a share in the estate, it is important to clearly state whether the specific bequest is in addition to, or included in, the value of the individual share. As well, it is a good idea to always keep the contents of your will in mind when giving large gifts to individuals who are beneficiaries in your will. If the gift you have given while you are still alive was meant to be part of that individual’s inheritance, your will may need to be updated to allow for the reduction in size of that share of the estate.
If there are no children of the marriage, a husband and wife may agree that the residue of their estate should be distributed in equal shares to the immediate family of each party, such as brothers, sisters, parents, etc. If there is some disagreement between the spouses as to how the assets should be divided, a lawyer can advise the parties regarding guidelines that a court is likely to apply should the couple die with no will at all.
If you have no spouse and no close friends or relatives to inherit your worldly assets, many people might like to choose as beneficiary a charity that they feel does work they would like to support.
As mentioned briefly above, individual gifts of specific cherished items or monetary amounts may also be included in a will under specific bequests. Most commonly, these bequests will be to close friends, religious organizations or charities and will be a small percentage of the total of the estate. Special bequests will normally be carried out before the value of the residue of the estate is calculated, reducing the amount available to the major beneficiaries.
Most people will not have large and complex estate matters to consider and the will making process can be as straightforward as is suggested above. Large assets can be held in joint ownership with the intended beneficiaries, avoiding costly court and legal fees. Beneficiaries of life insurance policies and retirement savings plans should be kept current to avoid the proceeds passing to your estate. In any case, it is always a good idea to speak with an estate planning professional and your lawyer to be sure that you are aware of all the options available in your particular jurisdiction.