A Will is a formal document in which you declare who receives your assets and belongings after you pass away. The Will names a Personal Representative to handle your estate. A Will does not avoid Probate Court involvement. A Will must be properly signed and witnessed in order to be valid and enforceable. Wills can be as simple or complex as necessary; you have a great deal of flexibility as to how you bequeath your assets.
Contents of a Will
In your Will, you will nominate a Personal Representative. In some states, this person is called the executor. This is the person responsible for administering your will – the person who will file the probate action, and who will be in charge of transferring your assets to the people you designate as beneficiaries of your assets. Note that you only nominate a Personal Representative; it will be up to your county’s Probate Registrar to actually appoint the person to be the Personal Representative. The nominated Personal Representative also has the ability to decline to serve in the role. It is generally helpful to nominate a person who is familiar with your assets, and whom you trust to follow your wishes and to act responsibly with your assets. You have the option of nominating two or more people to serve as Co-Personal Representatives; in this case, your will should specify whether it takes a majority or all of the Personal Representatives to consent to a particular action. In addition, you have the option of nominating a series of successor Personal Representatives, in case the first person whom you nominate is unable or unwilling to act.
Your Will will set out your wishes for how your assets will be disbursed after your death. Your assets include everything from real estate and investments, to bank accounts, vehicles, and intellectual property. You can simply give all your assets to a single person, divide your property among multiple people, or set up various contingencies so that certain assets go to particular people only in certain circumstances. A well-written Will should account for every foreseeable possibility, such as various beneficiaries passing away before you or the birth of additional children or grandchildren. Your Will should also account for the possibility that some or all of the beneficiaries may still be minors at the time of your death.
Your Will also gives you the opportunity to nominate a Guardian for your minor children. In fact, a Will is the only valid document in which parents can nominate Guardians for their minor children, and this is often the most important part of a Will for parents with young children. As with Personal Representatives, you can nominate Co-Guardians, and you can name Successor Guardians in case your first choice declines or is unable to serve in that role.
Signing and Witnessing a Will
Under Wisconsin law, Wills must be properly signed and witnessed to be valid and enforceable. Some states allow holographic wills, which are handwritten Wills that are not witnessed, but Wisconsin does not.
Wills can be written and signed by anyone 18 years of age or older, and who are of “sound mind”, which generally means that the person has not previously been adjudicated to be incompetent. If a person cannot physical sign the will, another person can sign for them.
Wills must be witnessed by two people, who must sign in the testator’s presence. Witnesses in Wisconsin do not have to be 18 years old, but they must be legally competent to testify in court. It is strongly recommended that each witness be “disinterested”, in that they are not beneficiaries to the Will. A witness can be an interested party only if they are receiving up to what they would have received had the testator died without a will.
In Wisconsin, signatures in Wills are not required to be notarized, but it is helpful to do so. It is simpler to admit a will in court if it is “self-proven,” which occurs when the testator and the witnesses sign a notarized affidavit along with the Will that the Will and the signatures are authentic.