Naming Beneficiaries for your Specific Gifts

When naming specific beneficiaries for your Nolo’s Online Will, follow these general rules:

  • Be consistent. Use exactly the same form each time you enter a person's name. For example, don't use a full name in one answer and a nickname in another. Use the Contact List for names that you've previously entered.
  • Don't include the person's relationship to you. For example, do not enter "my cousin, Eric Workman."
  • Check the spelling and capitalization of all names before you leave the screen.

Naming People as Beneficiaries

Beneficiaries' names need not be the names that appear on their birth certificates. As long as the names you use clearly identify the beneficiaries, your description should be sufficient.

Naming Organizations or Trusts as Beneficiaries

[At this time, you cannot name an organization or a trust as a beneficiary in Nolo's Online Will.]

Do Not Use Group or Category Names

When naming beneficiaries, list each person individually. Do not use a group name or a category of people like "my unborn children," "my stepsons" or "my friends at the club."

Naming groups can cause confusion and leaves the language of your will up to interpretation. Instead, make your wishes as clear as possible by listing each person's name. If a beneficiary dies, or a new beneficiary is born, update your will to include or exclude that person.

Multiple Beneficiaries

If you name two or more beneficiaries to share a specific bequest, you will be asked to specify each person's share.

You probably want to avoid possible tiffs among your beneficiaries. So the property you plan to leave them should be easy to divide—a sum of money or an investment portfolio. Or it should be property that you intend to be sold so that the proceeds can be split, such as undeveloped real estate or a valuable collection. For property that requires discretion to divide it may be wiser to leave items separately.

You can also leave your executor suggestions about how to split shared gifts by using a Letter to Survivors, provided with your will.

Young Beneficiaries

If any of the beneficiaries you name is a minor (under 18) or young adult (under 35), later in the interview, you will have a chance to choose someone to manage the property for them until they are older. You can choose to use the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act or an individual child’s trust. You’ll learn more about these options later in the will interview.

No Conditions on Bequests

It is usually not a good idea to place conditions on bequests—for example, "my red sports car to my nephew Donny Heinz, as long as he maintains a good relationship with his mother."

Doing so may raise a number of questions after you die, such as:

  • Who will decide whether the condition applies?
  • Who will enforce the condition if the property is distributed in the meantime?
  • What if the condition no longer makes sense when you die?

In addition, a number of courts called upon to interpret conditional bequests have held them invalid. They reasoned that a will maker who puts conditions on a gift of property did not actually intend to give the property freely.

For all these reasons, you may not place conditions on bequests in this will.

If, despite this advice, you want to craft a conditional bequest that attempts to anticipate future events, consult a lawyer experienced in drafting wills.

Naming Alternates

After you make each specific bequest, you will have the chance to name an alternate beneficiary (or more than one) who will take the property in the case that your first choice does not survive you.

Gifts to Caregivers in California, Illinois or Nevada

If you live in California, Illinois, or Nevada and want to leave a substantial gift to any nonrelative who has recently helped you with personal or health care, see a lawyer first. You can leave such a gift—but first you may need to have a lawyer sign a statement, verifying that you’re acting freely and aren’t being unduly influenced.

If you don’t, the gift could be void—meaning the intended recipient won’t get it. These states have laws that aim to prevent caregivers from taking advantage of the people who depend on them. However, the laws could easily invalidate perfectly reasonable gifts that you really want to make. For example, a gift to a new neighbor who brings meals and helps you pay bills could be voided, as could a gift to a paid live-in caregiver who has become a good friend.

These laws apply only to gifts greater than:

  • $5,000 in California (or less if your entire estate will be worth less than $150,000)
  • $20,000 in Illinois, and
  • $3,000 in Nevada.

Most gifts to family members won’t be affected, but gifts to loved ones who are not legally related, like stepchildren or unmarried partners, could be voided if your will is challenged. If you think these laws could void gifts that you want to make, see a lawyer who handles estate planning, family law or elder care matters for help.

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