Writing a Valid Will

Pennsylvania wills and estate law is complex largely because it has been written over several centuries and has responded to a myriad of wills and challenges to wills,

Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court distributed a father’s estate to his five children, despite the fact that the father had included some language in his will cutting three of his children out.

Pennsylvania intestate lavy has a clear and lengthy path for “intestate succession, ” which identifies who inherits when someone dies without any will.

The father wrote his own will without the help or advice of an attorney. He had five adult children. The father left his red pickup truck to one of his sons. The father’s will directed that his debts and funeral expenses were to be paid. It then identified three of the five children by name, and indicated that the “failure” to provide for “any distribution’ to them was “intentional.’ The father died with more than S200,000 in cash assets that he did not mention in the will.

Wills often include “specific bequests,” like the red pickup truck. A specific bequest is the identification of a particular asset, with the direction that it is left to a particular person. All well-drafted wills also include a “residuary’ or “residue” clause. That clause simply states what the person wants done with any leftover “residue” of the estate. Anything not specifically bequeathed to a particular person in a specific bequest will fall into the catchall ‘residue.’ The residuary clause of a will often controls most of the assets, since many people don’t make specific bequests of everything they own.

The court recognized that the father’s will made it clear that he did not intend to make any specific bequests to the three children whom he excluded from “any distribution.’ But because the father did not include any residue clause anywhere in the will, Pennsylvania intestate law controlled the residue. Pennsylvania intestate law has a clear and lengthy path for “intestate succession,” which identifies who inherits when someone dies without any will.

Intestate rules provide that spouses inherit first and that where there is no surviving spouse, all surviving children inherit equal shares. Whenever a will does not clearly identify who inherits the residue, the residue passes by the intestate rules. Because the father had no residue clause, intestate law provided that all his surviving children were entitled to an equal share of the more than S200,000 in cash assets.

Often people prepare their wills without any firm knowledge of how much cash and other property will be in their control at the time they pass. Sometimes, after making a will, a person may gift large portions of cash and investments before dying. In weighing the father’s intentions, the court reasoned that the father may or may not have been aware of the value of his cash assets, and the court concluded that it was impossible to know the father’s intentions regarding his residue. Refusing to “graft’ a residuary clause onto the will, the court held that the S200,000 had to pass by intestate succession to all five children because there was no residuary clause in the homemade will.

Pennsylvania residents have an absolute right to control their estates and can do so by properly executing valid wills. The best way to be sure your will is valid and enforceable is to have an experienced attorney guide you through the process. 

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