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Where There's a Will.....

fountain pen signing a document

Wills and probate records are gold mines of information for the family tree historian. They usually name a surviving spouse, and list living children, their married names, or their children, and sometimes where they are living. Once a will is probated (processed) it becomes a public record, and a copy can be obtained from the county clerk where it was filed in most, if not all, states for a fee.

This week's blog was inspired by a LinkedIn post by Joe Lander of Anglia Research - Probate Genealogy Experts in the UK about the recent study there about will writing. In the UK, only 44% of adults have a will. According to a US Gallup poll released in June 2021, only 46% of US adults have one. Most of those with wills on either side of the pond are senior citizens.

Why would you want a will? If you die without a will, aka "intestate," the courts will decide who inherits what you have left behind depending upon the laws of the state. Generally, in the US, if you have a bank account or property that is owned with Joint Tenancy, or an account that has a "pay on death" designee, that property does not have to go through probate which could take months.

ex-husband getting squeezed for money

If you die without a will the order your estate will be distributed is as follows: spouse, children, parents, siblings, and children of siblings. If there are no living heirs in one category, the property goes to the next category. If there are no living heirs at all, the property goes to the state. If you are divorced with children it gets more complicated. Please note that in some states it may be possible for your ex-spouse to inherit some of your estate if you don't have a will! Reason enough to make a will right there!

bank vault combination lock and handle

My granduncle Eddie, whom we have discussed in prior weeks, died without a will. Having lived through the Great Depression he had a great distrust of banks. I suspect he was a little paranoid about the Internal Revenue Service as well, as he had a habit of opening bank accounts under false names, which you certainly can't do today. This made the processing of his estate quite a nightmare for one of his nephews, the family lawyer.

A few weeks ago I discovered this chart in my mother's papers. Uncle Eddie was never married and had no children. His parents predeceased him, so his estate would pass to any living siblings or their children. He was one of 14 children born to James H. Jennings, only thirteen survived as one died in infancy. All 14 are referenced for this estate division. This chart was designed to show how his estate was to be divided according to the laws of the State of New Mexico. As you can see, some people were only entitled to 1/70th share as they were so far removed in the tree.

heirship chart

It occurred to me that maybe he didn't make a will because it was too complicated, but I think he had faith in Cousin Emmett. If the State doesn't know who your heirs are, your money will be escheated, or put into "Unclaimed Property." Uncle Eddie would have hated that. The expense for reclaiming those funds can exceed their value.

Fender Stratocaster electric guitar blue
antique dog umbrella stand

Better to have a will and protect the interests of your heirs. Having a will may also prevent any resulting family feuds over who gets the antique umbrella stand or the Fender Stratocaster.

In this day and age you can write your own will online if you have a very simple estate, but paying an attorney now will save your heirs heartaches (and money) in the future, and may well be worth the expense to make sure an ex-spouse or some other undesirable doesn't get any of your estate.

Different states may have different inheritance laws, especially when community and separate properties are involved. Different countries around the world have inheritance requirements protecting a wife, or disinherited children, so even if you write a will, the law may override your desires. Again, better to have an attorney if you have any doubts!

I am grateful to Cousin Emmett (and his paralegals), for doing all of this research on this huge tree. Even though granduncle Eddie did not leave a will, the estate probate records on file with the county where he died include the complete family tree showing all the steps including deceased children in between the top and the bottom of the tree not included on the above chart. If you are looking for missing family, see if there is a will or probate paperwork for any of the ancestors you do know about, some are available on line at places like Ancestry. Be sure to check that dusty box of papers in the attic too.

White carnations

My best wishes for a Happy Mother's Day Weekend to you. This is another opportunity to talk to your maternal ancestors about their families and memories. Siblings may have different memories than you do, talk to family this weekend! Go through the family albums and label all those pictures. I hope you ordered that DNA testing kit in time!

If you need help with that DNA kit, or help with sorting out your tree, or an estate settlement nightmare to share, send me an email, and let's talk! The first consultation is always free.

All the best,

Leslie Ryan

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