If you’re anything like me, by now you have broken all of your New Year’s resolutions. Actually, if you’re like me, you’ve stopped making any New Year’s resolutions (can’t stand the failure rate).

But please don’t fret, there is still plenty of 2016 left for you to redeem yourself. You still have time to review, update or prepare your will. But what if you’re thinking that considering your will was not on your list of resolutions? What then? I really don’t care, because it should have been on your list of resolutions. It should be reviewed every few years to make sure your final directives really say what you want.

So, when is the last time you considered your will? Do you even have a will? If you have a will, do you know what it says? Does it still say what you would like it to say?

What happens if you don’t have a will? Many people are surprised to find that if you’re a Pennsylvania resident and haven’t written your own will, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has written one for you. If you die having written your own will (called testate), then you can appoint your own executor and dispose of your assets as you wish (as long as what you direct is allowed by law). If you die without a will (called intestate), then your estate is required to follow the Pennsylvania laws of Intestate Succession. Therefore, if you die without a will, your executor is determined by the Courts and your assets are disposed of as required by these intestate laws, none of which may be what you would have wanted.

In addition to what your will directs (or in spite of what your will directs), some assets will be transferred based on how they are titled. Real estate, bank accounts, life insurance, and retirement accounts are good examples of this. You may direct in your will that a piece of real estate gets transferred to a certain person. However, depending on how you have the real estate titled, it may go to someone else. The titling of property will generally take precedence over what your will states. Your will may also direct that your bank accounts all go to your spouse or be split evenly between all of your beneficiaries; however, if you have the account titled in joint names or as a payable-on-death (POD) account, it will follow what is on the account. Another item we see a lot is accounts with beneficiary designations. Again, generally upon your death these retirement accounts, life insurance contracts, annuity contracts, and IRA accounts will be paid to the named beneficiary no matter what your will says. A quick item related to this is to check these beneficiary designations. Are the named beneficiaries still alive and still the people you want to be beneficiaries? You may be surprised at the number of ex-spouses that are still (mistakenly) named as beneficiaries on life insurance policies.

I find that generally no one likes to talk about their final wishes and what will happen when they are gone. So why am I pushing such a grim subject? Unfortunately, a couple of years ago one of my new clients was tragically killed in an accident at work. He had a wife and three children. I was surprised to learn that he and his wife had never gotten around to preparing a will. So, unfortunately, in addition to all of the terrible problems dealing with the accident, the lack of a will caused many additional problems and issues that needed to be dealt with.

So this is now one of my soap box items for all of my clients. I want you all to have a will and know what it says. I realize that there are many more issues that may need to be considered in your will, especially if you have minor children, but please do not let this stop you from preparing a will. Even a simple will is better than no will. Although there may be plenty of 2016 left, none of us knows how much time we actually have to get this done. So do it now!

Please let us know if you would like some help with this. We may be able to help you work through some of the various options including coordinating your will with the titling of your assets and review various tax consequences and gifting alternatives.

–Ted Landis