Years ago, a story surfaced in the news that sounded like something straight out of a sitcom.
A wealthy London widow, who had outlived both her husband and lone son, repaid the kindness shown to her by the owners of 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.
Your Money, Your Choice…
Sad and alone following the deaths of her husband and son, Ms. Bechal became close friends with the couple that operated her neighborhood Chinese restaurant. The three of them not only met regularly at the restaurant and Ms. Bechal’s apartment, but also traveled together on vacations. 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. They claimed that 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 had dearly wished to have, and her husband.
You may never have $21 million to pass on, yet the above story illustrates the challenges of settling an estate, especially when significant assets are involved. You have every right to choose where your money goes after you’re gone. Unfortunately, when you’re not around to see that your wishes are fulfilled, it’s increasingly important to have an ironclad plan. Especially if you suspect you may have people in your life who don’t seek to honor your wishes.
While it is possible to contest almost every will, there are several things you can do to make it less contestable.
Have a Professional Draft Your Will
Like most important legal documents, you should turn to an expert with will drafting experience. You may even seek the help of a trusted financial expert to give you guidance on what products may assist the distribution of your legacy. This can help you avoid mistakes and ensure that the courts interpret your will exactly the way you want after you have passed.
A hand-written will, although it may be valid, is not recommended. A handwritten will is called a holographic will. It is valid in only 26 states, so long as all material provisions and clauses are entirely handwritten. However, when it comes to estate settlement, a handwritten will may face challenges. They are often not as in depth as a professionally drafted will.
If your will is not properly written, it may not account for your true financial position. There’s also a possibility that it can contain language that is easily misinterpreted. Courts can be unusually strict in determining whether a holographic will is authentic.
Your financial advisor, in conjunction with an estate planning attorney, may also have other ideas for how to protect your final wishes. For example, they can recommend other considerations for you will (check out our Death Day article), or even help you set up a trust for more complicated assets.
Update Your Will Regularly
Make your “will review” part of your regular financial check-up, just as you should review your life insurance beneficiaries. When life is changing, it is sometimes difficult to remember these things. However, it’s so critical that you review these things regularly, and especially after major life changes. For example, if you go through a divorce, chances are you want to remove or change their position in your will.
Your assets can also shift over time. You likely have more to your name than you did ten years ago, so chances are in ten more years things will also look very differently. Since you cannot know when it’s your time to go, it’s better to adjust regularly. This action alone can give you much peace of mind.
Have a Professional Prepare the Updates
A will often contains a provision or schedule, listing specific assets and their intended beneficiaries. You may want to amend your will by hand when you’re reviewing it. However, in many cases, handwritten annotations are much easier to challenge, even if witness signatures are present. You should make revisions (generally called codicils or amendments) with the same care and attention to the procedure as you gave to the original document.
This way no one can contest that you were unfit, as Ms. Bechal’s family attempted in the story above.
Your Will 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.
Want Guidance on Your Will?
If you have additional questions about drafting your will, or how your life insurance beneficiaries may factor into this process, we’d love to assist you. We can also connect you with an estate planning attorney to help you iron out the details and stay up-to-date on your final wishes. Contact us or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.