Summary: Georgia’s new estate planning law allows for a separate document to be incorporated into a Last Will and Testament as the will is being executed. This separate document could be a Personal Property Memoranda, a Letter of Instruction, or some other written item. If you’re planning on working on your estate planning in 2021, now is a great time to get organized and begin thinking about who you’d like to inherit your personal property.
As 2020 is winding down, many of us are starting to work on our To-Do lists for the new year. December is a good time to decide on new goals and consider personal resolutions. It’s also a good time to begin thinking about your estate plan.
Last Will and Testament
One of the three essential documents that every estate plan should include is a Last Will and Testament, commonly referred to as a will. A will is a legal document in which a person provides instructions for the distribution of their assets upon death. This document can also be used to designate a guardian for any minor (younger than 18) children. The executor of the will helps ensure that a person’s property is passed to the beneficiaries according to that person’s final wishes.
New Georgia Law on Wills
The Georgia Legislature adopted House Bill 865 in June. The law goes into effect next month, in January 2021. The new law reads, in part, “Any writing in existence when a will is executed may be incorporated into the will by reference if the language of the will manifests this intent and describes the writing sufficiently to permit its identification” (OCGA § 53-4-1(a)).
In other words, beginning in January 2021, it is lawful to include a written document along with your will, as long as the will appropriately identifies and describes that document. The document can be included while the will is being executed. The document can also be updated at a later date without having to go through the process of executing a new will.
So why would someone want to include a separate, written document along with their will? Many people, as they work on their estate plan, like to include a Personal Property Memoranda – a detailed list of their personal possessions and who they would like to inherit (or not inherit) them.
If “getting organized” or “work on your estate plan” is on your January To-Do list, now is a great time to take stock of your personal property and think about who you would like to have those items. To get started, make a list of your major possessions (ex: furniture, jewelry, artwork, vehicles) as well the smaller or sentimental items (ex: photographs, journals, handmade goods, children’s toys). Consider what you’d like to sell or donate and what you’d like to pass along to your friends and family.
Communicate Your Wishes to Your Loved Ones
As you mentally work your way through your possessions, you might want to reach out to your friends and family to see if there’s anything that they are interested in having. There might be a specific item in your house that is special to them. Once you decide what to do with all of your possessions, it is a good idea to communicate those wishes directly to your family.
When it comes to a person’s estate, objects can hold sentimental and emotional value. Therefore, to avoid any surprises or family fights over household items, it’s a good idea to talk to your family about what you want to pass down to them and why. Be sure to remind your friends and loved ones that you intend to keep things fair and that your estate plan is designed to keep the family together rather than create any rifts over personal possessions.
Letter of Instruction
A Letter of Instruction is an informal (not legally binding) document that can be used by your estate executor or beneficiaries to locate your personal items and identify who is supposed to inherit them. The Letter of Instruction can also include narratives about why a person wants to leave certain items to their friends or family members. It can list instructions for the distribution of personal property (ex: if items should be donated to a specific organization or institution). In addition to speaking to a person’s beneficiaries about their personal property, a Letter of Instruction can help streamline the distribution process, avoid hurt or surprised feelings, and help heirs avoid the guilt associated with cleaning out a relative’s home. When coupled with a will, a Letter of Instruction can help memorialize a person’s final wishes about the distribution of their personal items.
Updating the Written Document
Another benefit to HB 865 is that the written document can be updated without having to execute a new will. So, if you’ve included a Personal Property Memoranda, Letter of Instruction, or other written document – you can make changes without having to draft a new will.
While everyone’s estate and family situation are different, it is important to make sure your documents are updated. You should revisit your estate documents after major life events such as marriage, divorce, births, or the deaths of loved ones. You want to make sure the documents reflect your current wishes and that your friends and loved ones will honor those wishes as you intended.
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