Estate Planning FAQs 


What happens if you die without a will in Virginia?


If you die without a will in Virginia, your estate will be distributed according to the state's intestacy laws. Essentially, this means the state dictates how your assets are divided among your surviving relatives. The court appoints an administrator to handle the distribution process. Initially, your assets are allocated to your closest relatives, beginning with your spouse and children.  

If you have no spouse or children, the estate may go to your parents, siblings, or other distant relatives according to a predefined priority list set by Virginia law. 

Without writing a will, you also lose the opportunity to make specific bequests to friends, charities, or non-relatives, as only legal heirs are recognized under intestacy statutes.  

Additionally, the lack of a will can complicate the guardianship of any minor children you leave behind, as the court will decide their guardians without your input. This can lead to unintended consequences, including long, potentially contentious legal proceedings that could have been avoided with proper estate planning. 


How is property transferred at death under Virginia estate law? 


Under Virginia estate law, property is typically transferred through a process called probate, which legally recognizes a will and appoints the executor to manage and distribute the deceased's assets according to the will's directives. If the deceased did not leave a will, the court appoints an administrator for the estate.  

During probate, the executor or administrator pays any debts and taxes owed by the estate. Once these obligations are satisfied, the remaining assets are distributed to the heirs or beneficiaries. 

For certain types of assets, however, transfer at death can occur outside of probate. These include assets owned in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship, payable-on-death (POD) or transfer-on-death (TOD) bank accounts, and assets within retirement accounts or life insurance policies with designated beneficiaries.  

Also, Virginia allows for the creation of a revocable living trust, an estate planning tool that holds assets during a person’s lifetime which can then be directly transferred to beneficiaries upon death, bypassing the probate process entirely. This can simplify the transfer of property at death and provide a private, more seamless transition of assets. 


Do I need a lawyer to create an estate plan in Virginia? 


While it's technically possible to create an estate plan on your own in Virginia, consulting with a seasoned estate planning attorney can significantly benefit you. Our lawyers at John B. Chappell, Attorney at Law offer decades of experience, and we can help you build a plan that's comprehensive, compliant with current laws, and tailored to your unique needs and wishes.  

In a more general sense, an estate lawyer can help you navigate even the murkiest of legal waters, especially when dealing with substantial assets, business interests, or intricate family dynamics. They can also offer strategic advice on: 

  • Reducing estate taxes

  • Setting up trusts

  • Protecting assets from creditors

  • Providing guidance on appointing legal guardians for minor children

  • Arranging healthcare directives

  • Establishing powers of attorney

By leveraging their expertise, you can avoid common pitfalls that might render your estate plan ineffective or even contentious among heirs.  

At John B. Chappell, Attorney at Law, our estate planning attorneys work with residents throughout Dinwiddie County, Petersburg County, Sussex County, Prince George County, Nottoway County, and across the state of Virginia. Call today to start building your future, your way.


What are the key differences between a will and a trust? 


The key differences between a will and a trust primarily revolve around the control, timing, and privacy of asset distribution after death.  

A will is a legal document that details how a person's assets should be distributed after they pass away. It becomes effective only upon death and must go through the probate process, which can be time-consuming and public. Wills are relatively straightforward to establish and amend but offer no control over the assets once distributed. They are particularly important for appointing guardians for minor children and can include specific instructions not directly related to asset distribution. 

On the other hand, a trust, specifically a revocable living trust, is a mechanism for holding and managing assets during an individual's lifetime, with provisions for distribution after death. Trusts offer a more private and often faster way to transfer property, as they bypass the probate process. This not only maintains privacy but can also reduce estate administration costs.  

Trusts provide a high degree of control over how and when assets are distributed to beneficiaries, which is useful for complex estate planning objectives, such as providing for minors, managing taxes, and protecting assets from creditors.  

Ultimately, trusts require more initial effort and expense to set up and maintain, but offer greater flexibility and control over a larger variety of assets. 


What is a power of attorney, and how does it work in Virginia estate planning?


A power of attorney is a legal document that grants one person, known as the agent or attorney-in-fact, the authority to act on behalf of another person, known as the principal, in financial, legal, or health-related matters.  

In Virginia estate planning, a power of attorney is crucial as it ensures that someone the principal trusts can manage their affairs if they become incapacitated or unable to make decisions for themselves. This document can be structured to become effective immediately, or it can be a "springing" power of attorney, activated only when the principal meets certain conditions, such as a medical doctor declaring them incapacitated.  

Powers of attorney can cover a broad range of actions, from paying bills and managing investments to making medical decisions, depending on the permissions granted by the principal. It's instrumental in planning for unforeseen circumstances, avoiding court-appointed guardianship, and maintaining continuity in personal and financial matters. 


Are there estate taxes or inheritance taxes in Virginia that affect estate planning? 


Virginia does not impose estate or inheritance taxes, distinguishing it from some other states where estate planning significantly revolves around minimizing these taxes. Despite this, Virginians should still engage in comprehensive estate planning to address federal estate taxes, which can apply to larger estates.  

Planning is essential not only for tax reasons but also to ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes, guardians are appointed for minor children, and your healthcare preferences are respected. Remaining informed and prepared, regardless of state-specific tax implications, ensures a smoother and more predictable estate settlement process for your heirs. 


Can I name multiple beneficiaries for specific assets in my estate plan?


Yes, in most cases, you can name multiple beneficiaries for specific assets in your estate plan. This strategy allows for a division of assets among several individuals, which can be especially useful for accounts with significant value or sentimental items that you wish to distribute among family members or friends.  

It's important, however, to clearly specify how you want the assets divided to prevent any potential disputes. For example, if you own a piece of real estate, you can specify the percentage of ownership each beneficiary should receive.  

Similarly, for financial accounts, you can allocate specific percentages to each beneficiary. Careful planning and clear documentation are crucial to ensuring that your wishes are followed accurately and that the transition of assets to your beneficiaries is as smooth as possible. 


How often should I review and update my estate plan? 


It is advisable to review and update your estate plan every three to five years or in response to significant life events. These can include marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, the death of a beneficiary or executor, substantial changes in your financial situation, or updates to federal and state laws that could affect the distribution of your assets.  

For instance, if you initially designated only your spouse as the beneficiary and later have children, it's crucial to update your estate plan to include them. Similarly, acquiring major assets like a new house or starting a business after your last estate plan update warrants a review to ensure these assets are properly integrated into your estate planning documents.  

Regular reviews help keep your estate plan aligned with your current wishes and circumstances, ensuring your legacy is preserved and passed on as you intend. 


What role does a guardian play in estate planning for minor children? 


In Virginia estate planning, appointing a guardian for minor children is a critical decision that affects how your children will be cared for in the event of your untimely death or incapacitation.  

A guardian's role is to assume the responsibilities of parenting, including providing daily care, making educational decisions, and managing healthcare and financial matters for the minors.  

Selecting a trusted individual or couple who align with your parenting values and wishes ensures that your children continue to thrive under the care of someone who has their best interests at heart. It's a decision that not only provides peace of mind, but also safeguards the well-being and future of your children. 


How can I ensure my business assets are protected and included in my estate plan? 


To effectively incorporate your business into your estate plan, it's crucial to evaluate the structure of your business—whether it's a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company (LLC), or corporation—and determine the right strategies for succession.  

Utilizing buy-sell agreements, establishing a trust specifically for your business, and considering life insurance policies to cover estate taxes or buyout agreements can safeguard your business's continuous operation.  

Plus, designating a successor who shares your vision and values for the business is paramount. This ensures that your enterprise not only survives but thrives, preserving your legacy and providing for your heirs according to your wishes.