What is a will?
A will is a legally enforceable document expressing your wishes for what should be done with your estate following your death. It generally names a personal representative (also sometimes referred to as executor or administrator) who is responsible for fulfilling your stated wishes. In addition to stating what you want done with your estate upon your death, you can also nominate a guardian for your minor children and state your wishes as to your funeral in your will.
What if I die without a will?
Contrary to what many people think, the state will not take your property if you die without a will. Washington has a set of laws that detail who will inherit your property upon your death. Generally speaking, the relatives most closely related to you will inherit from you if you die without a will.
If there is already a law in place saying who gets my property upon my death, why should I have a will?
Because you may want your property divided among your family or friends differently than provided by law. Also, without a will, all of your property is treated the same. It will all go to one person or group of persons, such as a spouse, siblings, or parents, without differentiation. By preparing a will, you can specify which of your property goes to which family, friends, or other beneficiaries.
If I want to avoid probate, can’t I just have a trust prepared?
Even if you have a trust, you still need to have a will. A trust will only take care of property that is titled or kept in the trust. To be effective, a trust should be accompanied by something called a pour-over will to put any property that may have been forgotten into the trust upon your death. Also, using a trust just because you want to avoid probate may not make sense legally or economically. Probate in Washington is generally not a difficult, lengthy, or costly process. In some cases, the cost of preparing a trust can be 10 times the cost of preparing a simple will, and in some cases the cost of a trust may exceed the cost of an entire probate. Before deciding to use a trust for estate planning purposes, you should consult an attorney to see if it accomplishes your goals, both legally and economically.
I have seen “do it yourself” wills at the office supply store and online, why don’t I just use one of those?
In order for a will to be enforceable, it not only needs to be prepared correctly, it also needs to be signed and witnessed properly. Many do-it- yourself will packages are generic and not state specific, and therefore may not meet the requirements to be valid under Washington law. And those packages that are state specific still require some drafting or filling in the blanks. Doing this yourself may result in unintended consequences after your death. Having an attorney select the proper will form, draft it to your specific needs, and ensuring that it is signed and witnessed properly is usually not much more expensive than a do-it-yourself kit, and should give you added peace of mind that it is done correctly.
What is a living will?
A “living will” is also called a Directive to Physicians in Washington. A Directive to Physicians is a legally enforceable document signed by you that states you do not want your death to be artificially prolonged. Unlike a medical power of attorney, you are not appointing someone to make these end of life decisions for you. You are expressing your intent and wishes in the Directive and asking your family, doctors, lawyers, and clergy to honor those wishes. In Washington, you can also direct that your physicians administer drugs or narcotics to ease your pain and suffering to improve your quality of life in the event you are terminally ill and not otherwise able to make your wishes known.
What is a power of attorney?
A power of attorney is a legally enforceable document in which you give someone else (an “attorney in fact”) authority to act on your behalf. A “durable” power of attorney remains effective even if you later become legally incompetent for some reason. Powers of attorney can be effective immediately or effective only upon disability. Powers of attorney can also be general, covering all types of decisions; or they can be specific, such as for medical decisions only.
Do I need a power of attorney?
A power of attorney is good to have in place in the event you become injured or are otherwise unable to handle your own affairs, whether you have personal, medical, or financial issues to manage. In many cases, having a power of attorney can help you avoid the expense of a guardianship if for some reason you are no longer able to care for yourself or your finances. A power of attorney can also be useful for people who are traveling and need someone back at home to handle financial or real estate matters for them.
I have a power of attorney for an individual who just passed away. Can I use the power of attorney to handle estate matters?
No, a power of attorney is revoked upon the death of the person who signed it. At that point in time, the personal representative, executor, or administrator becomes responsible for handling the estate.