Wills Week: Asset Distribution and Pie Charts, Pie Charts, Pie Charts

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 • by Sarah Whitman-Salkin

One of the reasons that Huguette Clark's family is contesting the validity of her will is because of the stark differences in the content of the last two wills she wrote. Not only were the wills written and signed only six weeks apart, they offer wildly different visions of how Ms. Clark wanted her assets distributed. Today, we're going to talk about how assets can be distributed in a will. Yes, we'll be using pie charts.

When creating a will, you have the right to give your assets—money, real estate, art, jewelry, your car, etc.—to whomever you choose: family members, friends, organizations, or institutions. The only people you may not name as a beneficiaries in your will are the people who serve as witnesses to the signing of the will.

Many people name only one beneficiary in their will, such as a spouse. (Huguette Clark's first will named only one beneficiary: her mother.) If you name only one beneficiary, the distribution of your assets would look like this:

Many people also name multiple beneficiaries, such as all their children. (Ms. Clark's second and third wills both named multiple beneficiaries: her nurse, her extended family, her lawyer, accountant, personal assistant, Beth Israel Hospital, etc.) If you name multiple beneficiaries, you'll need to decide how your assets will be distributed among these beneficiaries. One common method of distribution is to distribute assets equally among beneficiaries, which would look like this:

Another common way of distributing assets among multiple beneficiaries is to distribute assets unequally. In this case, you'd need to specify in your will how much or what percentage of your estate should go to whom. An uneven distribution can specify how much—in a dollar amount or percentage—each party should get, such as "Huey shall receive 50% of Scrooge McDuck's estate, and Dewey and Louis shall each receive 25%," which would look like this:

You can also leave a portion of your estate to be divided equally or specifically among a group of people, and also specify that the remainder be distributed equally or specifically to other people or organizations. An example of this type of distribution arrangement would be "Scrooge McDuck's estate is valued at $1,000,000.00. One quarter of the estate will be divided equally between the Phooey Foundation and McDuck College. Of the remaining assets, Huey shall receive $100,000.00, Dewey shall receive $200,000.00, and Louie shall receive $450,000.00," which would look like this:

In addition, you can specify that all your assets be sold and the profits from those sales be distributed equally or unequally among beneficiaries. Or you can decide that certain people should get certain items (Ms. Clark left her nurse, Ms. Peri, her valuable doll collection).

However you choose to distribute your assets in your will, it's important to remember that, even if you don't have $306,489,687.23 like Ms. Clark, you are communicating a legacy. Though you're under no obligation to inform your beneficiaries of how you've divvied up your assets, communicating your plans can save your family the stress and anxiety of not-knowing, confusion, and even (as in the case of Ms. Clark) doubt.