Will and Letter of Instruction

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:

  • A will can be a complex or simple document. Generally, a simple will, revised when circumstances change, is better than a will that attempts to take account of every turn of events far into the future.

  • A sensible plan for storing the original will is to leave it for safekeeping with the lawyer who drew it up. Copies may be kept in your personal safe-deposit box and with important papers that you take when you travel. The people concerned with settling your estate need to know where the original will is stored. You may wish to send them a copy of the will, information about where the original is stored, and instructions on your wishes should an emergency occur while you are overseas.

  • A letter of last instruction can be used to explain such matters as location of vital papers, current business affairs, and funeral arrangements desired. It may also be used to dispose of small items of sentimental value or to explain any special provisions of the will such as disinheritance, but it should be reviewed by the lawyer to ensure it does not conflict with the will.

  • You do not need to have a will in each jurisdiction where you own property. Your will can be probated in the state where you have your principal residence or domicile. Once authenticated in the state where it is probated, this will can be used as authority in other states where property is owned.

  • If you own property in more than one state, or if your state of residence is not certain or is likely to change, your will should take account of this. In such a case, the powers of the executor and of any trustee appointed in the will should be spelled out carefully, since the presumptions about such powers may vary in important ways from state to state.

  • Destroy the originals of outdated wills as soon as the new will is signed.

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