Deployments have some harsh realities. Some of those involve the required separation from friends and family, others are financial. But one of the most difficult issues involves a service member’s estate and how it should be managed in the event that the worst should happen and the deploying soldier, sailor, airman, or marine doesn’t come back from the deployment because they have died while on duty.
The legal document known as a last will and testament is intended to make dealing with these issues as simple as possible under the law. There is a very real need for all military members, deploying or not, to have a will, but making sense of the legal implications of one can be tricky.
Wills can be used not just to determine what happens to the service member’s pay and property; a will can also help determine how dependents are taken care of and how (and to whom) remaining benefits are to be paid.
A legally sound last will and testament is an important part of deployment planning. Knowing your financial house is in order – including your last wishes where your estate, pay, and benefits are concerned – can bring a great deal of peace of mind for those deploying into hazardous duty areas.
Military members aren’t left to their own devices when it’s time to plan a last will and testament, but you are also not required to use military resources to complete this important paperwork. The choice is up to you.
What Happens If A Person Dies Without A Last Will And Testament?
Those who die without completing a last will and testament are said to have died intestate and the laws of the service member’s home state dictate how the estate is to be handled. This may or may not be in accordance with the servicemember’s wishes, and it may or may not be in the best interests of the family members left behind.
In no case should a service member deploy without completing a will; it is not necessarily to the family’s benefit otherwise. In fact, it may deprive your loved ones of much needed funds to deal with the immediate aftermath of the service member’s death.
Remember, state law may dictate how a military member’s estate is divided even if the death occurred overseas or outside the state; the servicemember’s current state of residence may have jurisdiction, or the servicemember’s home of record as reflected in military paperwork depending on circumstances.
Why You Should Plan A Will Far In Advance
Those who have simple wishes may opt to do a standard will, and any base legal office can usually assist. But lengthy and/or complicated wills are often beyond the scope of your base legal office to handle and you may need outside assistance.
This is why it’s a good idea to identify your needs early and prepare the will long before it is needed for a military deployment.
Families with special needs, those with loved ones in the Exceptional Family Member program, those with college-age children or spouses who need to use the service member’s military benefits or pay to attend school should all be mentioned in the will specifically if you have funds or resources you want them to have.
Who Is Legally Permitted To Write A Will
If you are 18 years or older and “of sound mind” you are permitted by law to write a will, but there are certain circumstances which can make the legal enforcement of your will problematic. If you write a will under duress, or under “life-threatening circumstances” your will may be subject to legal challenge.
If you do not personally write your will, but it is written by friends or family members, your will could be subject to legal challenge.
If you write your will with the help of an attorney, it may stand a much better chance of surviving a legal challenge or not being challenged at all.
When To Update A Last Will And Testament
- When getting married
- When getting divorced
- When getting deployed, called to active duty, or starting a new military assignment
- When there is a change in family situation including a birth or death that may affect your plans for your estate
- When experiencing a major increase or decrease in property value
- In situations where tax law changes with respect to wills or estates
- When changing your legal residence
- When you decide you’d like to alter how you want your property distributed in the event of your death
Who Can Help You Create Or Revise A Will?
Any on-base legal office can assist; a civilian lawyer can also help but it is best to see the assistance of a lawyer with experience with legal issues associated with wills, estate law, probate, etc.
Within the United States, the Air Force official site has a search tool to help users find military legal services including help with wills. On-base legal offices offer a wide range of free legal services; using a civilian lawyer to create a will may require the payment of legal fees which may or may not be billed on an hourly basis.
An on-base legal office can help with wills and associated issues including:
- Powers of attorney (General and Limited)
- Estate planning
- Issues related to adoption, marriage, divorce, alimony, etc.
- Legally binding document review (including wills)
- Notary services
- Tax assistance
Living Wills Versus A Last Will And Testament
The laws of your state may differentiate between a living will and a last will and testament. It is good to have both, but one is not equivalent to the other. This is an important thing to remember since you should not only make preparations should the worst happen, but also (via a living will) leave instructions for any special requirements or desires you have should you become incapacitated.
Storage And Retrieval Of Your Will
Your last will and testament does no one any good if it is inaccessible when needed. It is highly advised to keep a copy in a secure location such as a safe deposit box you and your beneficiaries have the keys to, or to leave a copy with your lawyer where applicable.
It is highly advisable not to rely on digital documents alone but to have hard copies of your will available for your loved ones should they need it.
Execution Of Your Will
Depending on the complexity of your will, whether minor children or dependents are involved, or other factors, you may or may not require the services of a lawyer to execute your will. It is a good idea to appoint an executor of your estate should the worst happen; this can make the entire process easier on your loved ones since there will be a person with whom arrangements have been made in advance to handle your affairs.
If your will is relatively simple, it may not be necessary to do so, but making such arrangements ahead of the need can bring much comfort to your beneficiaries. Remember that proof of military service, death certificates, and other official documentation may be required to carry out your last requests.
These documents will take time to retrieve; it is best to include instructions on how to do so along with your will–doing this for your loved ones can greatly simplify the process in a time of grief.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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