A will is a legal document by which a person makes a disposition of his or her property to take effect at death. Besides designating the persons to whom property is to be distributed, a will also states who should be responsible for seeing that the distribution is properly carried out (the executor), and may also name a person to act as guardian for minor children.
There are formal requirements for making a will that vary from state to state. These requirements affect how the will is signed, the number of witnesses, and other matters of this kind. It is important to have professional assistance or advice in the preparation of a will; unless the formalities are observed, the will may not be valid.
When a person dies without a will (intestate), property is distributed according to a plan set out in the laws of the state in which the person was domiciled at time of death. For instance, if you are married and have children and die intestate while domiciled in the District of Columbia, one-third of your estate will go to your surviving spouse, and the remainder will be divided equally among your children. In both cases, the children's share will be the same whether they are minors living at home or adults who have long since left home. If the children are minors, the guardian will have to file annual reports in court accounting for management or disposition of the property that the child has inherited.
State law rarely provides the kind of estate plan that parents would choose. Therefore, it is particularly important for parents of young children to have current valid wills. Wills should be reviewed whenever there is a major change in one's personal situation, such as the birth of a child, the death of a beneficiary, any major change in financial status, or any change in marital status.
Here are some pointers on wills for Foreign Service families:
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