Your Complete Guide to Estate Planning – CHAPTER 5
Though drafting your last will—the central document in estate planning—here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania may seem complicated at first, our home state actually has few solid requirements for what a will must look like. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should scribble yours on a bar napkin and sign it with a purple marker you found.
Your goal should be to create a clear and unquestionably valid document that allows your loved ones to administrate your estate with ease after you’re gone—your will is essentially a gift to your friends and family in this way. And working with an experienced probate and estates attorney on all of your estate planning matters is the best way to accomplish that goal.
This chapter in our Complete Guide to Estate Planning offers a few tips that will help you write and maintain (that’s right—this document is not a “set it and forget it” kind of thing) a solid last will and testament that accomplishes your wishes while avoiding common pitfalls.
Name an executor
If you’re new to estate planning and have not yet considered other aspects of the process, like making power of attorney designations, spelling out who you want to carry out your will—naming your executor—can seem quite daunting. Who should you choose?
Many people name a spouse or an adult child to this role, though it is important to remember that just because you have a loving family relationship with an individual, it does not mean that they are cut out to have a successful fiduciary relationship with your estate. Consider who among your closest family members and friends is the most responsible at carrying out a plan to specifications. And it may not be something you want to think about, but the person you name should also be expected to outlive you.
What happens if you fail to name an executor or if the named person is not available? Probate court will appoint someone after you’re gone.
Decrease the likelihood that your will is contested
While probate is typically not something to fear, the process can become complicated if there are questions about a will’s validity. Heirs may contest the will, and this can lead to lengthy legal battles that most people would have never wished on their loved ones. Luckily there are steps you can take to guard against these types of issues, namely making sure your will is easy to “prove.”
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Make your will self-proving
Questions about your will’s validity are minimized when it is self-proving. Essentially, this has to do with involving a notary in your signing process. While wills are not required to be notarized—or even witnessed—at signing in Pennsylvania, taking the time to involve appropriate witnesses and notarization will save your executor some legwork during future estate administration.
To create a self-proving will, you must:
- Sign your will in the presence of two witnesses.
- Visit a notary with your two witnesses where all three of you will sign affidavits to affirm your identities and confirm that they indeed witnessed your last will signing.
- Pay the notary’s fee to legitimize the affidavits.
- Attach the affidavits to your will.
Keep your will updated
As we touched on above (and in several previous chapters of our estate planning series), putting your will in a safe or lockbox and forgetting about it for years is not a wise move. The structure of your family will change through the births of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Marriages will be celebrated (and sometimes come to an end, potentially leading to remarriages). Sadly, loved ones may have fallings-out and become estranged from one another. No matter the reasons, keeping up with family changes assures that important people in your life are not left out as heirs to your estate.
When you do need to make changes, it’s important to remember that you will have to go through the self-proving process again if you had done so on an earlier version. There may also be instances in which you are better off revoking your earlier will and making a new one rather than adding an amendment (called a codicil) to your existing will. The best way to proceed with last will revisions and/or revocation brings us to our final tip…
Work with an experienced attorney
Just because Pennsylvania does not have many hard and fast rules about what makes a last will legal, it does not mean that you should take a casual approach to drafting and signing yours. Additionally, there are many other matters to consider in estate planning, such as advance directives and living wills, as well as tax issues you must understand.
Experienced probate and estates attorneys like us here at May, Herr & Grosh can answer all your questions and ensure that you have a solid estate plan in place that can stand the test of time—we’re here to help you keep everything safe and up-to-date, too. Even if your estate is not vast, you owe it yourself and your loved ones to put a comprehensive plan in place. Call us today to begin the conversation about your unique estate planning needs.