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The Importance of a Will

“We’ve been meaning to get our Wills done.”

“I don’t need a Will because I don’t have anything.”

These are the two most common responses I hear when I tell folks that I am an estate planning and elder law attorney. People do not realize how important proper planning is, whether you think you have anything or not, until it is too late. If you are alive, you need an estate plan. An estate plan does not have to be an elaborate portfolio of wills, trusts, deeds, and an assortment of legal documents. An estate plan can be as simple as four primary documents that everyone should have – a Will, Power of Attorney, Power of Attorney for Health Care, and Living Will. This article addresses the importance of having a Will.

A Last Will and Testament is a document in which a person directs who will manage their estate and who will inherit their property. If a person dies without a Will, that person’s family does not get to decide how to divide the deceased’s property. Instead, a judge will choose who is the executor of the estate, and the estate will be disbursed according to Tennessee law, not the wishes of the family. A common misconception is that for a married couple, when one spouse dies everything goes to the other spouse. This is not necessarily true. If a married person dies without a Will, Tennessee law directs that the deceased’s property be divided between the deceased’s spouse and children, even adult children from a previous marriage.

For example, I represented a lady whose husband had two adult children from a previous marriage. When my client and her husband married, she moved into his house, but he never put her on the deed and did not execute a Will or any type of estate plan because “he would do it later.” Her husband died suddenly, and pursuant to Tennessee law since there was no Will, the house became the joint property of my client and her husband’s two adult children, each party owning a one-third interest in the house. My client never dreamed she would end up not owning the house she had lived in for over 20 years with her husband, and I’m sure her husband never intended to leave her with only a one-third interest in the house. Fortunately, her step-children were very accommodating and signed their interest in the house over to my client instead of forcing her to buy them out or sell the house and divide the profits.

This is only one cautionary tale of many stories of people who died without a Will or died with an improperly executed Will, and their loved ones suffered the unintentional consequences of the absence of a valid Will. I encourage everyone to consult with an attorney regarding your Will and estate plan so that your property is disbursed according to your wishes, not according to the laws of Tennessee.