What is a will? A will is a public document (when filed) by which a person directs how their probate estate is to be disposed of at death and names a personal representative to administer the estate (in some states, the personal representative may be called an executor).  Some wills are considered “pour-over” wills, which are designed to distribute property in one’s estate to a trust at death.  The benefit of this type of will is that the detail and type of property owned at death is not listed in the will and therefore maintain privacy when if the will must be submitted to a court.

State law dictates what “probate” property is. For example, if you own your home in your name alone and you pass away, your home would be part of your probate estate. A will may also nominate a personal representative, a guardian of your children, or provide wishes with respect to burial or cremation. Many wills provide for its creator to leave specific items of personal property by written memo, such as a wedding ring, to a specific named individual. It is the personal representative’s responsibility to distribute the estate’s assets as directed in the will.

What if I die without a will? One who dies without a will is said to have died intestate.  When someone dies intestate, state statutes, called intestacy statutes, dictate the disposition of property, which may or may not be what the deceased property owner would have wanted.

A little more about probate. Probate is a judicial process that involves the settling of the estate of a deceased individual.  If the individual died with a will, the probate process will validate the will, and the estate will be administered according to the terms of the will.  If the individual died without a will, they have died intestate, and the probate process will consist of the administration of the estate according to the state’s laws of intestacy.

Many states, including Wyoming, provide for a simplified probate process if a person dies holding minimal assets (the amount of assets that one can hold and still be eligible for simplified probate is statutory and varies by state), sometimes called “summary probate”.

Will substitutes. Using a “will substitute” is a way to dispose of certain assets automatically by naming a payable-on-death beneficiary (NOT a co-owner), without the need of a will or probate. For example most all bank accounts, retirement accounts, and brokerage accounts give the account holder the option of naming a death beneficiary. Another example of a will substitute is a transfer-on-death deed where a death beneficiary of real property is named. One benefit of will substitutes is that they are usually revocable, so if the account owner changes their mind regarding a death beneficiary or circumstances otherwise change, the beneficiary may be changed.