What a Will Won’t Do
Wills are wonderful, simple, inexpensive ways to address many people’s estate planning needs, but they can’t do it all. Here are some things you shouldn’t expect to accomplish in your will.
Leave Certain Kinds of Property
In most cases, you cannot use your will to leave:
- Property you hold in joint tenancy with someone else (or in “tenancy by the entirety” or “community property with right of survivorship” with your spouse).
- Property you’ve transferred to a living trust.
- Proceeds of a life insurance policy for which you’ve named a beneficiary.
- Money in a pension plan, individual retirement account (IRA), 401(k) plan, or other retirement plan for which you’ve named a beneficiary on forms provided by the account administrator.
- Property held in beneficiary (transfer-on-death or TOD) form. This may include stocks, bonds, and — in some states — real estate or vehicles.
- Money in a payable-on-death bank account.
Leave Funeral Instructions
Wills are typically not read — or even found — until days or weeks after a death. That’s too late to be of help to the people who must make immediate decisions about the disposition of a body and funeral or memorial services. Instead, make a separate document spelling out your wishes and tell your executor where to find it when the time comes.
Reduce Estate Taxes
If you expect your estate to owe federal estate taxes, you may want to take steps now to reduce the tax liability. A will won’t help you avoid taxes. Many kinds of trusts can reduce or postpone the tax bill.
Property left through a will may spend several months or a year tied up in probate court before it can be distributed to the people who inherit it.
Put Certain Conditions on Gifts
There are also a few legal limitations on what you can do in a will. For example, you cannot leave a gift that is contingent on the marriage, divorce, or change of religion of a recipient. You can, however, try to influence lesser matters. For example, you could leave money “to Jeremy, if and when he goes to college.” Making such conditional gifts, however, usually opens a can of worms — who will enforce the will’s conditions, and for how long?
Leave Money for an Illegal Purpose
This one doesn’t come up often, but you can’t earmark money for something illegal, such as encouraging minors to smoke.
Arrange to Care for a Beneficiary With Special Needs
If you want to provide long-term care for someone, a will isn’t the place. Far better to set up a trust that’s tailored to the beneficiary’s needs. A special needs trust can provide extra income for a loved one with disabilities, without jeopardizing government benefits.