Correct Use of Wills

by Carrie Ferland

Historically, a will was used as part of estate planning to define instructions for how a decedent’s property should be divided after his death. As use of wills became more widespread, individuals -- known as testators -- began using their will to arrange for far more than property disposable. Testators now use a will to provide financial support for a surviving spouse, arrange for the care of their minor children, extend basic rights to domestic partners or for various other personal needs.

Appointing Administrators

After your passing, the persons who assume responsibility for your estate are called your administrators. You can use your will to name your own administrators to handle certain tasks. Most testators appoint an executor, who files your will to begin probate and oversees distribution of your assets. You can also appoint different administrators to manage your bank accounts and cash assets, handle any legal claims against your estate and prepare your funeral arrangements. In this regard, a will offers quite a bit of flexibility -- some testators have even used this power to appoint a person to care for surviving pets, manage daily household chores and even care for the estate’s front lawn.

Granting Rights to Your Partner

Most states grant absolute rights to surviving spouses to financial support, jointly owned property and/or a percentage of the estate’s assets, even if the testator tries to disinherit his spouse in his will. These rights do not extend to same-sex spouses, common-law spouses and unmarried partners. You can, however, extend these rights to your same-sex spouse or partner yourself by establishing a will and expressly granting these rights to your significant other. With a will, you can ensure your loved one receives the same financial support, claim to your estate and even custody of your children when the state refuses to do it for you.

Bequeathing Property

The original purpose of a will was to allow a decedent to divide her property and assets among her heirs after her death. This use of a will is still perhaps the most common one in modern times. Through a will, you can bequeath real property, personal property, cash assets, investments and interests you own at the time of your death. You can divide your property in any way you choose, either individually by asset, by a percentage of your estate’s total net worth or both. Provided you hold an individual, separate or divisible interest in the property you bequeath, you can give it to whomever you want -- person, charity or entity -- under any terms you see fit.

Arranging Care for Your Children

Historically, the godparents a decedent named for his minor children at their birth were the persons who assumed guardianship of the children upon the decedent’s death. In modern times, the position of “godparent” has no legal bearing and a testator can name whomever he chooses to assume guardianship of his minor children. Using your will, you can appoint any adult guardian to take custody of your children after your passing and name alternative guardians if your first choice is unable or unwilling to assume the responsibilities.