Generally, a person's will does not control everything that individual owns. Many do not understand that.
Knowing what a person's will does and does not cover is important in completing an estate plan. Other legal documents or forms control certain property and assets, which are called non-probate assets.
Life insurance, retirement account funds, annuity policies, financial accounts with "payable on death" designations, U. S. savings bonds, and other assets that have a named beneficiary are examples of non-probate assets. The beneficiary form for each of these assets determines the recipient. However, when a person's estate is listed as the beneficiary, then their will does control in that situation.
Other non-probate assets include jointly owned property, such as real estate or stock accounts. They will be transferred to the co-owners "outside" the will. The exception is ownership by tenants in common. Each owns a proportional share of the property, and his or her will controls that person's share. But when property is owned jointly with rights of survivorship, then the deed or account title controls, not the deceased person's will.
Make sure to include the value of these assets in the overall determination of what you want your estate plan to accomplish.
While your estate can be the named beneficiary of life insurance, retirement accounts, etc., doing that is not always wise. When you decide upon a recipient, using the beneficiary form to name that person or non-profit organization will allow the asset to be transferred more quickly and can save estate and income taxes in certain situations.
The beneficiary for non-probate assets can be changed without altering the contents of your will. That can give you some flexibility in your overall estate plan, but it's also important to check the terms of your will when making any major beneficiary changes.
Keeping a list of the assets that will not be controlled by your will and the beneficiaries' names can be helpful when settling your estate. Storing the list with your will allows more efficient efforts by your executor.
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Deborah Miller, JD is the director of planned giving for the West Virginia University Foundation Inc.