In the state of Arizona, wills, trusts, estates, and protective proceedings are governed by ARS Title 14. Probate court and proceedings are also guided by the Uniform Probate Code, which has been adopted by 18 states to update and simplify state probate law.
Compared to other states, Arizona is rather lenient when it comes to what constitutes an acceptable will. Do-it-yourself (DIY) wills are perfectly acceptable, though there are plenty of circumstances where you’d be wise to at least consult an estate planning attorney (we’ll discuss that later).
As long as your will has the right content and signatures, it should be validated by the county probate court when you pass away. In fact, Arizona is one of the few states that allows handwritten wills—also known as holographic wills—providing your signature and handwriting is authenticated (that said, holographic wills are still highly discouraged).
There are ten simple steps to draft a will in Arizona:
- Gather your assets
- List personal bequests
- List your legal heirs
- Name your beneficiaries
- Plan to distribute your assets
- Appoint an executor
- Draft your will
- Sign and date the will
- Have two witnesses sign the will
- Regularly review your will
1. Gather your assets
Before you write your will, you’ll need to take an inventory of your assets. Start with your liquid assets, such as cash, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and life insurance death benefits. For each of these, track down the most recent account statement and jot down the value. Next, make a list of your illiquid assets, including real property, vehicles, jewelry, art, collectibles, guns, and furniture. It may be difficult to value these items, but don’t worry about that right now—an approximate value will do just fine. Also, don’t worry about household items, as your will should include a catch-all statement that ensures all of your household possessions are wrapped into the will.
2. List personal bequests
If there are any items on your asset list that are of particular importance or sentimental value, be sure to assign these to beneficiaries. Where your liquid assets can easily be split between heirs, personal property is handled best when it’s directly transferred to someone who you know will appreciate and cherish it as much as you did. If you have substantial liabilities, this also ensures that the most sentimentally important items are saved for last, and hopefully can avoid being sold to cover your debts.
3. List your legal heirs
First, make a list of everyone you’d like to gift assets to. This can include a spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, close friends, and charities, to name a few. Next, jot down anyone who might expect an inheritance from you, but for whatever reason will not be receiving one. These are the people and organizations that are most likely to contest your will and stir up trouble after you die, and it’s always best to deal with them sooner than later to prevent any problems.
4. Name your beneficiaries
Once your list is complete, make your final decisions on who will be listed as beneficiaries in your will. Be sure to include their full legal name and date of birth so there’s no confusion in probate court. If you feel comfortable, it’s helpful to let these people know what they can expect to receive ahead of time to eliminate confusion or frustration (especially if they’re getting less than they expect). If you haven’t already done so, contact your disinherited heirs and make it clear that they will not be receiving an inheritance from you. Again, it’s better to avoid potential conflict by addressing these issues ahead of time.
5. Plan to distribute your assets
By now, you should have a list of your assets, beneficiaries, and a few bequests for personal items. If there is anything else that you’d like to specifically bequest, write that down now. For assets that allow a contractual beneficiary on the account (retirement accounts, brokerage accounts with POD or TOD designation, life insurance death benefits, trusts, etc.), make sure the right beneficiaries are listed on the respective accounts.
Lastly, divvy up the remaining assets to your beneficiaries. Most people assign percentages to the primary beneficiaries (e.g. mom gets 25%, dad gets 25%, kids get 50%). It’s also a good idea to list a few secondary beneficiaries, just in case one or more of your primary beneficiaries pass away before you.
6. Appoint an executor
The executor (or personal representative) is the individual who will manage your estate when you die. They will be responsible for settling your liabilities and distributing your assets. When you choose an executor, be sure to let them know ahead of time so they have the opportunity to accept or decline the appointment. If they decline after you pass away and there is no alternate executor listed in your will, the court will have to appoint a third-party administrator.
7. Draft your will
If you’re doing this yourself, make sure the form you’re using is legitimate. The free forms you can find with a basic Google search may be a little risky, but software or DIY books from reputable sources are trustworthy. Just keep in mind that an accidental misstep on your part can result in your will being invalidated by a probate judge, in which case the court would distribute your estate according to intestacy laws as if you did not have a will.
8. Sign and date the will
This may sound obvious, but it’s one of the most common mistakes that can invalidate a will. Sign your will in the presence of two witnesses, and clearly indicate the date of signing. The state of Arizona does not require your signature be notarized.
9. Have two witnesses sign the will
Some states require that you use disinterested witnesses (meaning they are not beneficiaries to your estate), but Arizona is one of the few that allows interested witnesses. That said, it’s generally not the best idea to have beneficiaries witness your will, as it’s just one more thing an unhappy party can contest in probate court. Their objection will be denied, but it’ll still lengthen the already taxing probate process.
10. Regularly review your will
Once your will is complete, keep it in a safe place, and make sure a few trusted family members or friends know where to find it when you pass away. It’s a good idea to review your will regularly and update it as necessary. An annual review is best, but it’s fine to just check it every few years if you have a simple will and a small estate.
Do You Need Help with Probate Matters?
As you can see, AZ probate laws can be complex. It requires a number of steps and without the right approach, it’s easy to get lost in the details.
At JacksonWhite, we can make probate a clear, easy-to-understand process. If you’d like help with probate matters, call the talented team at JacksonWhite Law today.
We can help explain your legal options and direct you to the probate solution that works for you and your loved ones.