Many spouses create wills while both are alive, leaving everything to the survivor when one spouse dies. The surviving spouse's will becomes outdated as soon as she becomes widowed and must be updated to meet her current situation. However, the same general principles apply to all wills.
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Wills Give Control
A will allows its creator, called the testator, to direct how she wants her assets distributed in the event of her death. She can get very detailed with her instructions, such as listing who should inherit each of her personal items. Or she can leave entire categories of her estate to one or more people and let them sort out the details after her death. For example, she can leave her entire estate to her three adult children to be split equally among them.
Without a Will
If a widow does not leave a will, state laws determine who inherits from her. For example, if the widow's will leaves everything to her spouse and she does not make a new will prior to her death, her property will pass to any alternate beneficiaries named in her will. If there are none, the property will be distributed to the relatives identified in her state's intestate succession laws. Often, these laws give everything to her children or, if she had no children, to her parents or siblings. However, if she remarried, her second husband would likely get a share of the estate even if that is not what she intended.
A will can be especially important for a widow with young children because it allows her to name a guardian to care for them if she dies while they are still minors. Although a court must approve appointment of her guardian when the widow dies, courts generally rely on these guardianship nominations made in a parent's will. Without a will, it may be more difficult for the court to assign a caregiver, and the guardian the court assigns may not be the same person the widow would have chosen as guardian of her children.
Formalities Must Be Observed
A widow's will must meet her state's standards in order to be considered legally valid. Typically, this means the will must be in writing and signed. States generally require the signatures of two neutral witnesses who watch the widow sign the document, and a notary may also be required. If the will does not meet state standards, it likely will not be admitted by the probate court after the widow's death, so the widow's estate will be transferred as if she had no will.
Other Beneficiary Designations
Although wills direct the distribution of a widow's property, some property passes outside of the will and goes directly to named beneficiaries. For example, life insurance and retirement accounts generally pass to beneficiaries named in the policy's or plan's administrative documents rather than by will. Thus, a widow must update these documents after her spouse's death to ensure those assets pass to the correct beneficiaries.