Intent: What Exactly Does That Mean in Estate Planning?

October 10, 2017 by Elizabeth Ruthmansdorfer

Often, I get initial calls from individuals who want a “will.”  They don’t think they need estate planning, they only want a will.  This begins a journey with the individual of what exactly estate planning is, that they need more than the will (powers of attorney for sure), and that their will and their beneficiary designations need to match.

The proper name for a “Will” is the Last Will and Testament.  Why is this the name?  We have to go back into history to understand the document.  Originally, this was a document for men who died without an heir.  Then, old English and French were put side by side, the term “will and testament” were put together.  This pairing of the words made it clear that both real property and personal property were being distributed.  It is meant to be a person’s last intent about who should receive property at that person’s death.

Intent is synonymous with purpose, objective, goal, wish, desire, plan or design.  A Last Will and Testament should align with an individual’s purpose, goal, etc.  So why is this so difficult to determine?

I request a review of financial assets and beneficiary designations when I am doing an estate plan.  Many times, the individuals who sit in front of me tell me they want certain people named to receive assets in their will, but have brought to me assets with beneficiary designations that are completely different.  I see an insurance policy to one person, a joint bank account with someone else, multiple savings bonds with grandchildren’s names, and an investment account with several charities.  The person in front of me may say everything goes to the children under the will.  We have a clear disconnect in Intent.  What is it that the person really wants?

Good estate planning is not “just a will.”  A good estate planner will discuss intent with the individual in front of him or her.  What is your goal, what are your wishes and desires?  How do you want to leave a legacy?  What do you not want to have happen?  Do you have individuals in your family who are on public benefits or have special needs?  What is most important to you?  With the answers to questions like this, a good estate planner can craft a plan that truly reflects the person’s intent.  The plan will encompass changes to beneficiary designations to accurately reflect that intent.

Without this coordination regarding intent of the Last Will and Testament and the beneficiary designations, trouble is just waiting to happen.  The individual dies and the family brings me the will.  Meanwhile, the assets with beneficiaries on them are being transferred to the named beneficiaries who may or may not be people named in the Will.  The question I am asked is, “How did this happen? This is not what mom/dad/spouse told me they wanted.”  Sometimes I am then asked, “Can I fight the beneficiary designation?”  The short answer, although there are exceptions, is “no.”  The federal laws govern beneficiary designations and the Last Will and Testament is a state document.  Federal law trumps state law.

So, the next time you hear of someone who tells you they need a will, or if you are thinking of getting a will, remember INTENT.  Find someone to work with who will coordinate your wishes while you are alive with your Will and your beneficiary designations.  Make your wishes clear.  Your beneficiaries will thank you.

Attorney Elizabeth Ruthmansdorfer