YOUR WILL: DOES IT DO WHAT YOU THINK IT WILL DO?
A Will puts you in charge because it allows you to decide who will receive your assets upon death. A Will may also show your intentions regarding burial, cremation and, if you have minor children, who should be the guardian of those children. If you do not have a Will, the law decides who receives your assets, and a court may need to decide other issues such as guardianship and burial.
A Will requires more than filling in blank lines on a preprinted or online computer form. Although a Will is beneficial for you, your intentions may not be fully realized if the Will is not properly drafted or if you are unaware of other legal issues which may affect your plans. These fill-in-the-blank forms may not achieve your desires or give you proper advice.
On September 20, 2018, the Superior Court decided a case regarding whether the children lost their father’s legacy. The appeals court focused on evidence issues and it did not decide if the children lost their legacy. It sent the case back to the trial court for another hearing.
Evidence issues are not the focus of this article. Rather, the facts of this case show why it is important to know how other laws may thwart your intentions.
In this case, Decedent prepared a Will in the year 2000. Decedent had two adult children from his first marriage and a stepchild through his current wife. His Will gave wife 50% of his property, his daughter 25% and his son 25%. His stepchild received nothing unless another heir died before him.
On May 27, 2007, he died and his Will was probated. At the time of his death, he and his wife had $330,000 in jointly-held accounts.
In Pennsylvania, the Multiple-Party Accounts Act states that the surviving joint owner of the account receives the funds in the account. A Will does not change this law and as a result, his wife received all of the money in the joint accounts.
You may have guessed who received virtually nothing under his Will: his two adult children. (They would receive some of his personal items.) There was nothing to give to them from these joint accounts because the funds went automatically to his wife, who was the joint owner.
You may have guessed who filed legal action to obtain their share. His adult children filed legal action claiming their legacy failed because their father intended to give each of them 25% of his assets as stated in his Will. They claimed Father would not have given 25% to each of them and then create joint accounts which would give them nothing. They made two additional claims. First, they claimed the person who actually prepared the Will failed to advise him that joint assets would go to their stepmother outside the scope of his Will. Second, they claimed if father received proper advice, stepmother used this advice after he signed the Will to place the money in joint accounts to deprive them of their proper share.
How will the case end? Will father’s intent be granted? Will the children lose and not receive anything except for a few personal items? We don’t know. The case proceeded to trial in 2015 and it has been in appeals ever since then. Currently, the case is with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The bottom line is to understand that a person may have the best intentions and draft a Will, but if one is not aware of how other laws affect those intentions, your Will may not accomplish your goals. A Will does not change your beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy or a retirement plan. A Will does not change who receives a joint bank account or the real estate on a jointly titled deed.
If you are unaware of these other issues, your estate planning goals may not be satisfied and your intended heirs may be left with nothing. Litigation takes time and money, not only for the heirs, but the estate. We are available to give you the advice you need to make an informed decision and to properly draft your Will.