A will has one primary objective: to transfer assets after death. The logical, and more complex, questions follow: How should the personal representative distribute assets? Did the individual identify by name all the beneficiaries and satisfy all requirements for a valid will? Does anyone unnamed—an heir, for example—have a legal relationship that could serve as a basis to sue?
Heirs vs. beneficiaries
Common terms misused in will formation include heir and beneficiary. Heirs have legal rights to receive estate property, but generally only in the absence of a will. State laws prioritize the order in which heirs will receive estate assets. Conversely, beneficiaries refer to those legally named in a document to receive assets from an estate. Among the requirements for a valid will as defined by state law, proper identification of beneficiaries ranks perhaps most important.
Beneficiaries have recourse only in properly executed wills
A recent course case demonstrates how Pennsylvania law limits the rights of beneficiaries. A will properly executed a month after the death of a decedent’s wife in 2014 left equal distributions to various family members (Heirs). An attorney met with Heirs and the decedent’s fiancée, whom he married before his death. According to an Attorney’s File Note, provisions for the fiancée would be made outside of the will. The attorney, however, failed to prepare wills for the Decedent and Wife to sign before his death in 2019.
Heirs filed a complaint against the Attorney’s law firm for contract-based legal malpractice. On review, the upper court reviewed two cases that had discussed third-party beneficiaries. The first recognized those who meet specific requirements—an executed will that identifies them—can sue. The second emphasized that individuals named in unexecuted documents have no claim to third-party status.
In affirming the trial court’s decision, the court highlighted two important facts. First, the Heirs had overlooked that the Decedent never signed the document. Second, the parties could not use evidence outside of the will itself, specifically the Attorney’s File Note, to prove third-party status.
Experience with changing circumstances
Formalities of will preparation and execution demand attention to detail. Serious legal, as well as financial and emotional, consequences can ensue an inadequate response to any of these issues. An attorney with knowledge and understanding of the law and the personal nature of the probate process can offer guidance.