"Do I really need a will? What happens if I die without a will? Does everything just go to the state?" "I just made a list of who gets my stuff and I signed it - isn't that enough?" "My will was done 20 years ago - do I need a new one?" "I just want to change one small thing in my will - as long as I initial the change, can I just cross out what is there and write the change in the margin?"
What happens if I die without a will?
No matter what you may have been led to believe, your estate does not go to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania if you die without a will. Pennsylvania has, however, provided for such a contingency with its 'intestacy' statute which provides, in part, that if you die:
With a surviving spouse and children, the first $30,000 of your estate passes
Without a surviving spouse or children, everything goes to your parents.
Because most people would leave the estate to a spouse, assuming that the second to die will take care of the parties' children, they are surprised by the second of these 'ifs.' The law presumes, however, that people leave their estates to "the natural objects of their bounty" (i.e., their family members) and, in this regard, spouses and children are considered to be the natural objects of one's bounty.
Do I really need a will?
If you want to leave your estate in a manner other than as set forth in Pennsylvania's intestacy statute, then you need a will. In addition, a will allows you, if you wish, to (i) make specific gifts to individuals, charities, or other organizations; (ii) include particular burial instructions; (iii) appoint a personal representative to carry out your wishes; (iv) provide for care of a beloved pet; (v) include a trust for a disabled child; (vi) decide when your children are to receive distribution of all or a part of your estate; and (vii) treat your children differently one from another and explain why you have chosen to do so.
I just made a list of who gets my stuff and I signed it - isn't that enough?
The only requirement at common law for a valid will is that it be "signed at the end thereof;" thus, if you write on a sheet of paper a list of your assets, how you want them distributed, and then you sign the document at the end, you have created what is called a "holographic" will; and it is, in fact, a valid will.
The problem arises, however, when after your death it becomes necessary to prove the validity of that will. If there were no witnesses; is that really your signature? At least two people familiar with your signature will have to sign affidavits to that effect. Did you name someone to carry out your instructions for distribution of your assets? Assuming not, then someone will have to be appointed by the Court to do so. In addition, unless you specifically waive it, the person appointed to be administrator will be required to post a bond before they can be appointed to administer your estate. So, while a holographic will may be valid, it can create problems that would not have been problems had a proper will been prepared to begin with.
When is it necessary to re-do my will?
It is advisable to review your will every couple of years to ensure that it still adequately reflects your wishes. If your will is entirely inadequate due to significant changes that have occurred in your life or in the law, it may, indeed, be necessary to do a new will. Minor changes to a will, however, may be made by means of a codicil to your will.
What is a codicil?
A codicil is a formal amendment to your will, and is signed with all the same formalities as is your will. Under no circumstances should you EVER make changes (e.g., cross-outs, strike-overs, white-outs, writing in the margin, etc.) to your will on the original document!