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What is a Bequest?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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The noun bequest, and the verb, to bequeath, are terms most often associated with the writing of a will. Essentially they refer to the language in your will, which states how your physical property, usually not your money, will be distributed after your death. A bequest can be made on behalf of a single individual who will inherit your physical property, or it can be made to benefit a group of individuals, a company, or a nonprofit or charitable organization. Provided that your bequests do not contradict state law regarding inheritance of your property when your will is probated, they should be honored.

You can make bequests to dispose of large amounts or small amounts of property. You might for instance, make a will stating that you son becomes the owner of your chalet in Switzerland. Though a bequest can be large, as with the disposing of real estate, many people bequeath very small items in a will that perhaps have sentimental value. For instance, you might want a close friend to have a particular pair of earrings she’s always admired, or you can even bequeath that all family members get a lock of your hair.

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Sometimes bequests are called conditional, since they are based on certain instructions or wishes being carried out. For instance you could bequeath a home to a family member provided they open it as a museum. If the family member is unable to do so, you might make other provisions in the will for the disposition of that property. You can also bequeath animals, provided certain care standards are maintained.

Another term associated with bequests is residuary bequest. This is the estate that remains after you make specific statements about distribution of property. You may then ask for distribution of residuary property to spouses, heirs, family members or organizations. If you are adamant about certain property belonging to a certain person after your death, it’s a good idea to state so in a will, since anything not included in a bequest becomes residuary property, and may be disposed of by heirs in any manner they see fit, even if you’ve informally asked them to comply with your wishes.

If you have extensive bequests that you want to make, it is extremely important to have a lawyer draw up your will. The lawyer can determine which property disposition statements you make are legal within the state you are resident, and whether any heirs may be able to challenge a bequest. For instance, if you are married or are under guardianship of another person, you may not legally be able to make any bequests. Property and inheritance laws may override bequests if you have a spouse or children who survive you, and if someone else has power of attorney or guardianship of you, any bequests will probably not survive probate, since you may be deemed of unsound mind when creating your will.

Though it can be challenging to think about your death, and who will get or deserves your property afterwards, it’s common knowledge that the least specific wills or no will at all, especially when quite a bit of property is involved, tend to be a touchstone for family divisiveness and ill will, even among family members or friends on good terms with each other. The last thing you want to leave your heirs with is a family squabble or debate. Therefore, making bequests, and making clear your wishes can help smooth strained relationships in what will already be a difficult time for those who survive you.

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