BOZEMAN — Writing a will or thinking about doing so is a normal and reasonable response in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Montana State University Extension specialist.

Dr Marsha Goetting , MSU Extension Family Finance Specialist (MSU Photo)

Marsha Goetting, MSU Extension family economics specialist, has collected information about the process and Montana law for people interested in getting started with creating a will.

A will is a written document that describes how property is distributed after a person’s death. By making a will, people can decide for themselves who receives their property, how much each beneficiary receives, when they will own the property, and, to some degree, what they can do with it. In the absence of a will, Montana law determines how your property is distributed. A will only becomes binding upon death and after being validated by a district court.

Goetting said there are a few ways to write a will. One is a “holographic” will, one that an individual can create themselves in their own handwriting. Such a will can be valid if the signature and the material provisions are in the handwriting of the testator, the legal term for a person whose will is being written. Self-made wills, however, frequently increase costs and trouble for heirs, said Goetting. The validity of a handwritten will can be questioned due to errors and legal interpretation that conflicts with the testator’s intentions.

“In most cases, an attorney can advise and assist you in drafting a will that best suits your needs,” Goetting said. “You want an adviser to avoid the legal pitfalls that can result from a ‘do-it-yourself’ will from a computer software program sold on the web. Avoid relying on the advice of untrained relatives or friends who are not current on Montana laws about wills.”

Attorney fees for help making a will vary, depending on the size of the estate and the complexity of the will. Goetting urged people to always ask an attorney for an estimate of the cost, preferably at the first meeting.

An attorney can make a will “self-proved.” That means a statement is added noting that the testator and witnesses signed and acknowledged the document as genuine. That way, when the will is submitted for probate, witnesses do not have to be present to testify whether the testator was of sound mind when the will was signed.

Goetting recommends storing a will in a safe place, such as with a bank, trust company or the attorney who drafted it.

Montana law also allows a will to be stored with a district court. Individuals can contact the clerk of court in their county for the correct procedure. The testator, or a person they’ve authorized, can pick up the will for the purposes of changing or destroying it. Goetting said careful consideration should be given to storing wills in a jointly owned safe deposit box since multiple people would have access.

Goetting also noted that a will may not control all of a person’s property. If that property is owned by two or more people in joint tenancy with “right of survivorship,” after one owner dies it will be owned by the survivor or survivors — even if the will says otherwise. Proceeds from assets where a beneficiary is named — such as insurance policies; pension funds; U.S. savings bonds; payable-on-death financial accounts; transfer-on-death registrations on stocks, bonds and mutual funds; and transfer-on-death deeds on real property — also cannot be controlled by a will.

“A will is a written plan to make sure your property and assets are distributed the way you want after your death,” Goetting said. “Your will is the blueprint that guides the district court in the distribution of your estate. Write one now before it’s too late.”

For more information, request the MontGuide about wills from a local MSU County Extension or Reservation agent, or download the PDF at www.msuextension.org/publications/FamilyFinancialManagement/.