One of Those Details That Needs Regular Attention

Perhaps you noticed an item from the week of December 3, 2007 that appeared in the major wire services…

A wealthy London widow who had outlived both her husband and lone son, repaid the kindness shown to her by a family that owned a Chinese restaurant by leaving them a $21million inheritance. The woman, Golda Bechal, had stated in a 1994 will that she wanted Kim Sing Man and his wife, Bee Lian to be the beneficiaries of her estate upon her death.

Sad and alone following the deaths of her husband and son, Ms. Bechal became close friends with the couple that operated a Chinese restaurant in her neighborhood. The three of them not only met regularly at the restaurant and Ms. Bechal’s apartment, but also traveled together on vacations to other countries. When Ms. Bechal died at age 88 in January 2004, her five nephews and nieces contested the will, asking the British courts to declare it invalid, claiming Ms. Bechal suffered from dementia. However, after more than three years of deliberations the court awarded the inheritance to Kim Sing Man and his wife, saying, “it was not irrational to leave the bulk of her estate to Mrs. Man, the daughter she would dearly wished to have had, and her husband.”

You may never have $21 million to pass on, but the above story illustrates the challenges of settling an estate, especially when significant assets are involved. While it is possible to contest almost every will, there are several things you can do to make it less contestable.

Have it drafted by a professional. A hand-written will, although it may be valid, is not recommended. A handwritten will is called a “holographic will.” It is valid in about 25 states so long as all material provisions and clauses are entirely handwritten. However, because most handwritten wills are not as in-depth as a professionally drafted will and because they are oftentimes not properly written, they are not recommended. Courts can be unusually strict in determining whether a holographic will is authentic.

Have all changes and updates prepared by a professional. A will may often contain a provision or schedule, listing specific assets and their intended beneficiaries. Some people may try to amend this section by hand at a later date. In general, any handwritten annotation is much easier to challenge, even if witness signatures are present. Revisions (generally called codicils or amendments) should be made with the same care and attention to procedure as was given the original document.

Make a will review a regular part of your financial check-up. If it’s on the list, you’ll get used to doing it. If you do it regularly, it won’t take much time.

Checklist:

  • Have your will drafted by a professional.
  • Have all changes and updates prepared by a professional.
  • Make a will review a regular part of your financial check-up.

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