With a few exceptions, the government doesn’t dictate to whom you must leave your money and assets when you die. For example, you can't leave property to another piece of property, such as your pet. Also, if you don't leave a will stating your wishes, the court will get involved and direct disbursement according to statutory law. In general, however, few rules apply to who you name as a beneficiary. If you like, you can leave everything to your girlfriend — but there may be some practical consequences.
You have the right to leave your money to anyone you wish, including your girlfriend.
Understanding the Challenges
Ideally, you'll live a long and happy life after you write your will. If you die shortly afterward, however, and if you and your girlfriend have only been together a short time, you can probably expect that your heirs will be unhappy with its terms. Whether you leave your girlfriend your entire estate or just a cash portion, they can challenge or contest the will's provisions and try to have it overturned. Most states allow challenges on grounds of undue influence. Your heirs can say that your girlfriend must have coerced you into writing your will the way you did — otherwise, you would never have made such a bequest to someone you hardly know.
Another issue relates to the identity of your heirs. Heirs are anyone so closely related to you that they would have inherited by statutory law even if you didn't leave a will. You can legally disinherit most of these people: parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. You can leave everything to your girlfriend if you like, ideally by including language in your will indicating that you don't want anyone else to receive anything.
Spouses are a different matter, however. State laws vary, and you might be able to omit your children as beneficiaries, depending on where you live. If you were married, however, and if your divorce is not final yet at the time of your death, your wife can usually veto the terms of your will and elect to take a statutory percentage of your estate instead. In this case, your girlfriend might receive less — even much less — than what you intended to give her.
Leaving a cash bequest to your girlfriend can be tricky in other respects as well. If you break up with her a few years after you write the will and you never revoke your will or amend its terms, your girlfriend will still inherit — even if she's long been out of your life. If she predeceases you, depending on your state's laws, your money might go to her children, even if you never met them. Another concern: some states will not allow your girlfriend to serve as executor of your estate if you also name her as a beneficiary, so check with a lawyer in your area if you're thinking of doing both.
In Terrorem Clauses
You can nip a lot of potential problems in the bud with a little advance planning. If you and your girlfriend marry or break up after you write your will, make sure to update it to accommodate the event. If you think your relatives will object to sharing your estate with her and that they'll try to prove in court that she influenced you into making the gift, you can add an "in terrorem" clause to your will. Also called a "no contest" clause, this states that if anyone challenges or contests the terms, his own bequest is vacated and he'll receive nothing. However, not all state courts uphold these clauses, and if you didn't leave your relatives anything to begin with, they have nothing to lose by challenging your will.
- Clark Skatoff: Florida Will Contests Frequently Asked Questions
- West Virginia Senior Legal Aid: Can a Beneficiary of a Will Also Be an Executor (Personal Representative) of a Will?
- NOLO: Who Will Care for Your Pet After You Die?
- WTOP: 7 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Naming Your Beneficiaries
- LegalHelp.org: Frequently Asked Questions About Wills
- Important Points When Drafting a Will
- Rights of the Beneficiary of a Family Trust
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- Do I Sign an Heirship Affidavit Even If My Dad Had a Will?
- Does a Minor Inherit Money After a Parent's Death?
- What Are the Pros & Cons of Wills vs. Trusts?
- What Rights Do Heirs Have in Probate?
- Can an Estranged Spouse Inherit My IRA?