Resource Guide for Family Caregivers
Wills and estate issues

A Will is a legal document that leaves instructions about what to do with a person’s possessions at the time of death. Generally a Will makes it clear what is to happen with furniture, property and other assets and may deal with funeral arrangements. It is extremely important to have a properly drawn up Will to avoid potentially harmful disputes between family members. More than a few families have been torn apart because someone in the family died and left a poorly written or out-of-date Will, or no Will at all. Such disputes do not typically arise out of an overt sense of malaise between family members. They are more often the products of years of accumulated feelings and/or vague or inadequate directions for disposal of the estate.

Wills are generally composed of several parts. An important feature of a Will is that it appoints an executor whose job it is to look after the estate, pay or settle legitimate debts, claims and taxes, and distribute assets. More than one person can be designated as executor. The ideal executor:

  • is a younger person living nearby
  • has the ability to deal with financial affairs
  • is trustworthy and reliable
  • is willing and able to take on the responsibility
  • is trusted by all family members

The executor can be the spouse of the person who has died. Legally, the executor is generally the person who has authority to make funeral arrangements if necessary although sometimes funeral parlors will deal with family members instead. Sometimes funerals are prearranged.

A Will takes effect upon death, which makes it different from an enduring power of attorney and a representation agreement (which terminate upon death). If you are a family caregiver for someone who is terminally ill or in failing health, it is important that you find out whether there is a Will in place. You will also want to find out what kind of ceremony she/he desires, whether the person wants to be buried or cremated and if prepaid arrangements have been made. If appropriate, you may want to talk over with the person you are caring for the details of the service.

You can find additional information on making a Will from a lawyer, notary public, the People’s Law School, or book stores (look for Self  Counsel publications on how to write a Will). (Notaries are not allowed to draft Wills that contain trusts.) Be aware that the content and language of a Will is important; a poorly written Will can create additional problems rather than set the record straight. Therefore, if the care receiver decides to write his/her own Will, it still may be advisable to have it read over and verified by a notary public or lawyer.

One thing needs to be clear, a Will must be completed when the person is legally capable of understanding the nature and extent of his/her assets and is freely and willingly able to make and sign a Will.