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Who Needs a Will?

You need a will if you want to leave property at your death to anyone other than the people who will inherit from you if you don’t have a will. In Virginia, the people who inherit from you if you don’t have a will are, in this order of priority:

  1. Your spouse inherits everything, unless you have any children who are not also your spouse’s children. In that event, all of your children (any children you have before your marriage to your spouse and any children you have with your spouse) receive 2/3 of your estate, and your spouse receives the remaining 1/3.
  2. Your children and the descendants of any children who have died before you.
  3. Your parents, or the survivor of them.
  4. Your brothers and sisters and their descendants.
  5. Half to your father’s relatives and half to your mother’s relatives. The lists go on forever.

So, if you want to leave a gift to charity, you need a will. If you want to make a specific gift to anyone who would not otherwise receive it, you need to make a will. For example, “I leave my stamp collection to my nephew, Tim, who always admired it.” If you want to change the proportions in which people inherit, or the order in which they inherit, from the statutory scheme in any way, then you need a will.

What a Will Won’t Do.

Your will does not operate on assets you hold with survivorship. For example, many married couples own their house with survivorship. When the first spouse dies, the house will belong to the survivor; not because of what the will says, but because of what the deed says.

Similarly, bank accounts, cars, shares of stock and virtually every other asset can be held with survivorship. Such property will go to the surviving co-owner, no matter what the will says.

Similarly, your will does not operate on life insurance policies and retirement plans if you named beneficiaries in them. Life insurance will be paid to the beneficiary named in the insurance policy. The death benefit from a retirement plan will be paid to the beneficiaries whom you named in the plan documents, or under the automatic terms of that plan. Again, your will will not change this.