The need for a will as a key component of your estate plan may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised by the number of people — even affluent individuals — who don’t have one. In the case of the legendary “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, she had more than one, which after her death led to confusion, pain and, ultimately, a court trial among her surviving family members.

Indeed, a Michigan court recently ruled that a separate, handwritten will dated 2014, found in between couch cushions superseded a different document, dated 2010, that was found around the same time.

In any case, when it comes to your last will and testament, you should only have an original, signed document. This should be the case even if a revocable trust — sometimes called a “living trust” — is part of your estate plan.

Living trust vs. a will

True, revocable trusts are designed to avoid probate and distribute your wealth quickly and efficiently according to your wishes. But even if you have a well-crafted revocable trust, a will serves several important purposes, including:

  • Appointing an executor or personal representative you trust to oversee your estate, rather than leaving the decision to a court,
  • Naming a guardian of your choosing, rather than a court-appointed guardian, for your minor children, and
  • Ensuring that assets not held in the trust are distributed among your heirs according to your wishes rather than a formula prescribed by state law.

The last point is important, because for a revocable trust to be effective, assets must be titled in the name of the trust. It’s not unusual for people to acquire new assets and put off transferring them to their trusts or they simply forget to do so. To ensure that these assets are distributed according to your wishes rather than a formula mandated by state law, consider having a “pour-over” will. It can facilitate the transfer of assets titled in your name to your revocable trust.

Although assets that pass through a pour-over will must go through probate, that result is preferable to not having a will. Without a will, the assets would be distributed according to your state’s intestate succession laws rather than the provisions of your estate plan.

Reason for an original will

Many people mistakenly believe that a photocopy of a signed will is sufficient. In fact, most states require that a deceased’s original will be filed with the county clerk and, if probate is necessary, presented to the probate court. If your family or executor can’t find your original will, there’s a presumption in most states that you destroyed it with the intent to revoke it. That means the court will generally administer your estate as if you died without a will.

It’s possible to overcome this presumption — for example, if all interested parties agree that a signed copy reflects your wishes, they may be able to convince a court to admit it. But to avoid costly, time-consuming legal headaches, it’s best to ensure that your family members can locate your original will when they need it.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions about your will or overall estate plan.

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