Probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing a will is determining who your beneficiaries should be. Beneficiaries are those people or entities that you leave your property to.
Who Can Be a Beneficiary?
Some common beneficiaries include:
- Your spouse
- Children and grandchildren
- Other relatives
- Organizations, such as churches and universities
When naming a beneficiary, make sure to give enough information so they can be easily identified and located. For a person, this would include the name, address and birth date. Be as specific as possible to identify the person in your will.
If you put, "Jane Smith of California," this could be any of a hundred women. Make the search for Jane Smith easier by saying: "Jane Smith of Hayward, California born on August 2, XXXX whom I went to college with." This is much more specific and will help your attorney verify her as a beneficiary. Adding the town where the person lives may be tricky if they move.
Also, make sure to update your will if a life changing event occurs, such as a birth of child or death of a beneficiary.
Generally, people not specifically mentioned in your will don't receive anything, with exception to your spouse and children.
There are many factors about how a spouse is treated, starting with the state you live in. In a community property state, it's assumed your spouse receives half of your property and earnings during your marriage. However, you can determine who gets the rest of your estate and any separate property that you own.
If you're not in a community property state, it's assumed that you'll leave something to your spouse anyway. Your spouse can contest the will if you leave them a smaller portion of the estate than what's required by law.
In addition, be aware of any laws or rules in your state regarding leaving the family home to anyone other than a surviving spouse or minor children.
Most states protect minors from the loss of family home, so be sure to check additional rules about this subject.
However, you don't have to leave anything to your children. To make this happen, specifically name the children you're disinheriting and declare that they should receive nothing. If you specifically don't mention one or more of your children in the will, it'll be assumed that you left them out by accident, and they should receive a share of your estate. You should also name any illegitimate children and stepchildren you may want disinherited as well.
Accordingly, you should include in your will what should be done if you don't want a grandchild to inherit that portion.
Beneficiaries Outside of Your Family
The more outside the circle of family your beneficiaries are, the more detailed and documented your will needs to be to stop will contests from occurring, and keeping your property from being distributed.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I treat my family members differently in my will, or they don't like how I've provided for them, can they challenge my will?
- I've been married more than once, and I have a complicated family structure. Does that need to be taken into account in my will?
- Can I leave property to a charity or school with conditions of my choosing, for example, how my gift is to be used?