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Ask the Expert: Do I need a will if my accounts have designated beneficiaries?

All my accounts have designated beneficiaries. Do I still need a will? I want to leave my house to one of my kids.

Even people with designated beneficiaries usually need a simple will to bequeath possessions like cars and collectibles, to say nothing of household fixtures and holiday decorations. (The fiercest family fights occur over items of sentimental value, according to estate lawyers.)  

And you'll need a will or a trust to leave your house to one child, unless he or she jointly owns it with right of survivorship.

Assets jointly owned with right of survivorship and assets with designated beneficiaries (like retirement accounts, life insurance policies and "in-trust-for" accounts) go directly to their surviving owners and named beneficiaries. All other assets pass via your will. They're distributed after the will is probated — the court procedure that authorizes your executor to carry out its instructions.

In New York, probate is quick and relatively inexpensive. (And it isn't required for estates worth less than $30,000.)

Court fees and executors' fees are based on the value of the probate estate, which doesn't include the value of assets that pass outside the will. Court fees range from $280 to probate an estate worth between $50,000 and $100,000, up to $1,250 to probate an estate worth $500,000 or more. Executors can charge between 2% and 5% of the probate estate; but executors who are also heirs typically waive their fees.

Attorneys' fees depend on the estate's complexity as well as its size. Although not required, it's extremely helpful to retain a lawyer to handle probate and any required tax filings. The most equitable legal fees are hourly rates or flat fees, rather than a percentage of the estate's value.

The bottom line

Most people should have a will.

More information

TO ASK THE EXPERT Send questions to Ask the Expert/Act 2, Newsday, 6 Corporate Center Dr., Melville, NY 11747, or email Include your name, address and phone numbers. Questions can be answered only in this column. Advice is offered as general guidance. Check with your own consultants for your specific needs.

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