Should You Register Your Will?

You can register your will after you make it. But do you really need to?

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No state requires you to register your will (last will and testament) after you write it. However a few states and some online companies allow you to register basic information about your will, including its location. Additionally, in some counties, you can store the will itself with the probate court.

Why Register Your Will? 

You may want to register your will if you’re worried that your will won’t be found after you die. For your will to take effect, it must be presented to the probate court after your death.

If Your Will Can’t Be Found

If the will can’t be found, you are considered to have died “intestate” (without a will), and your property is dispersed according to state laws. These laws – called intestacy laws -- usually give property to the deceased person’s closest family members. But even if the law gets it close – say, giving all of your property to your spouse or children  -- it’s certain that some wishes cannot be met this way.  For example, if you want specific items of property to go to certain people, that won’t happen if your will can’t be found. 

EXAMPLE:

Juan wrote a will leaving most of his property equally to his two children – one biological child and one stepchild from his second marriage who he thought of as a son, but never officially adopted. He also left his coin collection to his nephew. After his death, his children knew that he had a will, but they had no idea where it was. They searched his house thoroughly, but never found it.  Because they couldn’t produce the will, Juan’s estate went through probate intestate. The court distributed his property according to state laws which gave everything to his biological child. Contrary to Juan's wishes, his stepchild and his nephew got nothing.

How Registering Your Will Helps

If you registered your will your executor or loved ones can search for it if they can’t find it -- at least if they know to contact the registry.

EXAMPLE:

As above, Juan made a will leaving his property to his children and a nephew.  But after he made his will, he registered it with his county’s probate court.  Then he mentioned the registry to his children. When Juan died, his children searched his house for his will, but never found it.  Then they checked with the probate court and found Juan’s registry, which stated that his will was kept in a safe deposit box, the key to which he taped to the underside of the mahogany office desk.  Juan’s children located the key, and his will. The will was presented to the probate court, and Juan’s property was distributed according to his wishes – to both children and his nephew.

Or, Tell Your Loved Ones Where You Keep Your Will

Will registries work well when no one knows where your will is. However, an easy solution to this problem is to simply tell your executor or loved ones where you keep it. Doing it this way will save you the hassle of registering your will, and it will also save you the registry fees – although these are usually relatively small. Also, even if you register your will, you still have to tell someone that you did so, and you have to remember to update the registry if you move your will or make a new one. Considering the extra work it takes to register a will, it’s usually better to simply make sure that those who will need it know where to find your will when the time comes.

Will Registries vs. Living Will Registries

Don’t confuse “will registries” with “living will registries.” Wills name beneficiaries for your property, name your executor, and name a guardian for your children. In contrast, living wills describe what kind of health care decisions you’d like others to make for you if you can’t make those decisions yourself. Like will registries, there are also living will registries, in which you can register your living will to help ensure that it is found when your loved ones need it.  Read more about living wills in The Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care: An Overview.

How to Register Your Will

If you decide to register your will, you may have a couple of options.  Some states allow you to register your will through the secretary of state or your local probate court.  Some permit you to register the will itself – leaving the original with the court – but others only allow you to register information bout your will – most importantly, its location. Check with your local probate court to find out how it works in your county. Usually, you fill out a form, pay a small fee, and (if permitted) leave your will in a plain sealed envelope.  Only your close relatives or executor will be able to access the information after your death.

Another option is to use a private will registry company. These are online companies that store information about your will – usually for a fee. Like the state registries, the registry will allow only certain people to access to the information about your will after you die. You can find these registries with an internet search -- “find a will registry online” should yield several options. 

No matter where you register your will, remember that it won’t do any good unless your loved ones know where to search for it. Make sure to tell someone -- or several people -- where you’ve registered your will.  Or, just tell them where you keep the will itself.

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