Nina Smith

How often should you update your will?

Filed By Nina Smith | March 10, 2008 7:59 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: estate planning, financial planning, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, updating your will

"A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes" - Mark Twain

Over the weekend, my new Hollywood insider, Bronson Page tipped me off that Heath Ledger's will named his parents and sister without any mention of Michelle Williams and their daughter, Matilda. How could that be? Well, he never updated his will while he was with Michelle.

Heather Ledger's will was written and filed in 2003 before his relationship with Michelle Williams and the 2005 birth of their daughter Matilda Rose, New York's Daily News reports. The actor's will had not been updated before his death.

The documents go on to reveal that Ledger had less than $145,000 in New York assets at the time, including a $25,000 Toyota Prius and $20,000 in furniture and fixtures.

His greater wealth now is uncertain. It's rumored his estate is worth $20 million after earnings from the latest Batman movie are calculated. No joker there.

While his family quickly promised Matilda would be taken care of, Michelle has already been warned by two of Ledger's uncles that she may, "have to fight to ensure her infant daughter receives part of her famous father's fortune."

Of course, this is all speculation and the media has a way of sensationalizing at any hint of scuttle, but it's a good reminder about the importance of preparing a will and keeping it current. If you're an adult with assets, there isn't any excuse for not having one.

Do you need an attorney to prepare a will? Well, legally no, but practically speaking, yes. 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy explains it this way:

A will does not need to be prepared by an attorney for it to be legally effective. A will that you draft yourself, or even a preprinted will form purchased in an office supply store, will be legally effective if you are of legal age in your state (i.e., 18), are mentally competent, and execute the will properly. This means the will must be acknowledged and signed by you in front of witnesses. The required number and age of the witnesses varies from state to state, though two witnesses who are at least age 18 is typical. In addition, the witnesses should not be anyone who will benefit under your will. Some states also require that a will must be notarized to be legally effective.

However, most people feel uncomfortable with a do-it-yourself will. They generally have some questions that should be addressed by an experienced estate planning attorney. In addition, some people have more than just basic concerns or are in complex situations where drafting the will properly is vital. Legal assistance can help ensure that your intentions are clearly communicated and no questions exist at the time of your death. You should also seriously consider professional assistance if your personal situation includes concerns such as:

  • You have minor children, children from a prior marriage, or a beneficiary with special needs
  • You own significant assets and are concerned about minimizing estate taxes at your death
  • You want to achieve certain goals, such as controlling the management and distribution of your property after your death
  • You have heirs you wish to disinherit, or there is a chance your will may be contested after your death

Looking for a quick fix? For $19.95 get your feet wet with Suze Orman's Will & Trust Kit. I'm not a big fan of people hawking products like this over the Internet but she's a reputable source (and one of us) and it will at least get you started with the four must-have documents:

  • Will
  • Revocable Trust
  • Financial Power of Attorney
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

Here are a few other tips about document planning from our Domestic Partnership Checklist:

Make a will
If you own your house jointly, don't assume that your partner will automatically receive it if you die. A will and/or a trust confirming your intentions can help ensure that your assets pass as you desire. If you die without a will, intestacy laws will not leave your assets to an unrelated partner.

List beneficiaries
Many assets, such as life insurance, 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts, are transferred outside the will and are not subject to probate. Thus, same-sex couples may wish to list each other as beneficiaries on individual accounts and policies. On non-retirement accounts, consider establishing Transfer On Death (TOD) provisions where permissible under applicable state law.

Make a property agreement
If you put your partner on the title, you may be making an irrevocable gift. Another approach to consider is creating a property agreement or joint tenancy agreement in order to address the possibilities of death or separation.

It's always best to turn to the professionals for advice. Find yourself an experienced estate planning attorney and make arrangements. Life has unexpected turns and we all die at some point. If thinking about death gives you the heebie jeebies, put the anxiety aside and get your paperwork in order. It's not that hard. Ledger had a toddler counting on it. Who's counting on you?

Nina blogs about money over at Queercents.

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Thanks for the excellent advice! Of all of the documents you listed, I believe a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care is one of the most important as it allows you to designate someone responsible for your health care in the event you become incapacitated.

Not all of us have assets or dependents such that we'd seriously consider a will. We should all be serious about who's making decisions about our health care though and not leave that to the courts at such a critical time.

One last thing that wasn't mentioned but I think is also important is to discuss your wishes with the people involved. You might not think it's important to designate something in particular to a beneficiary but it may hold great sentimental value for them and cause unnecessary feuds later. There are countless stories out there of families who were ripped apart over arguments over things like stamp collections which hold little monetary value but tremendous personal value. Ask people what they want and try not to make any assumptions.

A friend recently mentioned on an email list I'm on that if you want to see why it's so important to have a well thought out will, sit in a probate court for a couple of days and take a good look at the faces of the surviving family members you see there.

Jesster: You make a really good point, so thanks for that reminder about planning ahead. Along with a durable power of attorney, two other documents are important: make a Health-Care Proxy and Living Will.

As an aside, one of our writers at Queercents wrote of her horror story with her mother's final days and funeral arrangements in this post, Buried in Debt, due to issues with surviving family members. Sad stuff.

I still don't have a will, but since I don't really have anything to leave other than some furniture, books, etc - do I really need one? I don't have any children. The only thing I own that's worth anything is the house Jerame and I co-own.

Bil: You should have a will!

Re: the house - do you and Jerame own it as 'joint tenants' or 'tenants in common'? What's the difference? If property is owned as 'joint tenants,' then in the event of your death, the property will automatically pass to Jerame (with or without a will or trust).