Durham, NC - If you die without a will, your immediate family automatically inherits all of your property, right?
Not necessarily, said Curtis Twiddy, senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School.
"If you die without a will, state law determines who inherits," he said.
Twiddy explained how wills work to a dozen Duke employees gathered for a recent financial seminar sponsored by Duke Credit Union. The free seminar covered how property is owned and inherited, how and why to write a will and how the legal process - called probate - guides the transfer of assets after death.
"People don't like thinking about wills because it means thinking about death," said Twiddy, who practiced law in Raleigh for 27 years before retiring in 2000. "But having a will makes your death less complicated for the people you leave behind."
Twiddy offers benefits of preparing a will:
Know the status of what you own. Preparing a will is a convenient opportunity to review all assets. Not all property requires a will. Some assets like retirement benefits or property owned jointly with rights of survivorship already have named beneficiaries and are automatically inherited. However, other assets owned solely by an individual such as real estate, bank accounts, cars or other belongings must go through probate, which ensures debts are paid and determines who inherits what remains. A will ensures that these assets are handled according to your wishes. "Any good attorney preparing a will should review both probate and non-probate assets to make sure everything is coordinated," Twiddy said.
Decide who inherits. If an individual dies without a will, state law determines who inherits any assets going through probate. "This division isn't always what you would want," Twiddy said. For example, for the assets of a single person with no children, the state gives everything to a surviving parent. Brothers and sisters inherit only if both parents are dead. For a married person, the state divides assets between a spouse and a parent if there are no children or between a spouse and child, even if the child is a minor. "Without a will, any step-children you have not adopted are completely shut out," Twiddy said.
Safeguard your children and their money. A will allows you to nominate an individual(s) to serve as guardian of your minor children and guardian of their inheritance. In the absence of a will, the clerk of court determines who has these rights and responsibilities.
Ease the work for survivors. Without a will, the court-appointed estate administrator and any guardians for your children must make annual reports and pay filing fees to the court until the estate is fully settled or the children reach adulthood. A will can waive these fees and reports.
Avoid confusion and court costs. North Carolina recognizes handwritten wills, "but the safest way to ensure that your wishes are followed is to have an attorney prepare a will that is signed, witnessed and notarized," Twiddy said. A well-prepared will avoids the need to have witnesses come to court to validate the will.
Celia Tate, a clinical research coordinator with the Duke Clinical Research Institute, attended the seminar. She had collected information about wills from books and workshops and pondered writing a will for several years. "This class confirmed that I just needed to do it," she said.
Two weeks after taking the class, Tate, who is single with one adult child, met with her attorney, prepared a will and placed it in the filing cabinet with other important papers.
"I wanted to make sure that I wasn't leaving things hanging," she said. "I feel a lot more comfortable now that I know it is done."