Military Will

Written by: Pat McManamon

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The U.S. military provides legal help and support to service members who want to write their last will and testament. Though it’s not a requirement, service members are encouraged to complete a will during their service.

The military has Legal Assistance offices around the country where various kinds of legal help is available at no charge. These offices can assist you in writing a will. The Armed Forces Legal Assistance (AFLA) office helps active-duty service members (including those in the reserves), reservists released after active duty of at least 30 days, retirees and family members.

Military attorneys in the legal assistance offices are part of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. Other legal services offered include drafting powers of attorney, family law advice, help with taxes, and help with immigration and naturalization issues.

It’s important for anyone to have a will. For service members it’s even more important — even if the service member does not have children or valuable assets. The unexpected is a part of a service member’s life. He or she could be stationed overseas, or could be sent to tense or dangerous situations.

It simply makes sense to finalize a will while serving in the military.

Why Is a Will Important?

A will is a legally binding document that makes sure your wishes are carried out after your death. It’s not a pleasant fact to face, but it is reality.

A will is important to everyone, but it is more important to service members who may find themselves in harm’s way. Preparing for the future and ensuring those you care about are taken care of if something should happen to you is simply sound and wise thinking.

It is especially important that service members have wills – and essential to any service member deployed overseas, and to a member who has children, owns property or has savings or investments. The will gives peace of mind that children will be taken care of the way you wish, and that assets will go to the people you care most about.

If a service member dies without a will, his estate and inheritance are then subject to the laws of the state of his or her residence. The JAG office provides the following information for why a will is so important:

  • In most states if a service member dies without a will, the estate goes to the spouse – if the couple has no children. If the service member has children, the estate will be divided among the spouse and children. If the service member has no spouse or children, the estate typically goes to the parents.
  • If a service member with minor children does not have a will, it’s likely the court could appoint a guardian to look after their share of the inheritance. The guardian could be your spouse, but the spouse would have to pay a bond and may not be permitted to touch the children’s portion of the inheritance, including for education and support, without the court’s permission. The court may require accounting of how the money is being used, which may require a court appearance. Because there was no will, the surviving spouse faces complications and added expenses.

What happens after death matters, and taking care of things in the most prudent way possible before it is too late is simply a smart thing to do.

How to Write a Military Will

Any service member writing a military will needs to answer the same questions that the general public must face. Decisions must be made about passing on of assets (property and savings) as well as determining the future of your children as best you can.

If you are using AFLA, the first step is filling out a required worksheet that the office provides. Once the worksheet is complete, you have a meeting and discussion with an attorney.

If you and your spouse are preparing wills, it is a requirement that the Legal Assistance office attorney meet with both of you.

While AFLA will help with preparing a will, if your situation is complex you may be sent to a civilian attorney. This is especially true if you have an estate worth more than $1 million. You do not have to use the military’s legal assistance office, but with the service available for free it makes sense to start there.

Among the questions you will need to answer when filling out the worksheet or preparing a will for another attorney:

  • Who will be your executor of your estate? This is the person you designate to ensure your wishes are carried out properly.
  • Do you have a complete listing of all assets? This includes everything you own, including real estate and life insurance.
  • Who will receive any savings or investments you have? If married, whether it goes to your wife, your children, a fund that pays for your children’s education, or to someone else. If not married, it could be a sibling, a parent, or another family member, friend or even a charity if so desired.
  • If you own a home, how will it be handled? Consider carefully. If your wife receives the home, are you providing enough money to allow her a fair time period to take care of herself without your income?
  • What about other valuables you have? Who inherits those?
  • Who will take care of your children? If you are married or have a partner, that answer might be simple. But a guardian could be appointed to manage the money you leave them. This decision is critical if you are at all nervous about a spouse’s ability to manage money.

The will worksheet is not necessarily a complex document to complete, but it needs to be filled out carefully, correctly and completely.

It’s important to remember that a will can be changed – and may need to be changed if your personal, financial or family situations change. Some of the situations that may prompt you to change your will include:

  • Marriage or divorce
  • A birth or death in the family
  • A significant increase or decrease in the value of your property
  • Deployment overseas
  • Your executor dies, or becomes unable to serve
  • Laws change
  • You move from one state to another
  • You have changed your mind on how you want your estate to be distributed

All are fair and reasonable reasons to update a will, but changes are best done with an attorney.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Write My Will?

The general rule: The more complex your assets and estate, the more you may need a lawyer.

Even a simple will may require advice and support of an attorney, and while an attorney is not inexpensive, he or she has a deeper knowledge of the system and its rules and regulations.

The AFLA is an excellent place to start. It will provide free counsel, and guide you properly. However, if the situation is too complex, it will suggest you hire an estate planning attorney.

Traditional Will vs. Military Will

Given the complicated situation some service members face, the government exempts members from some of the requirements of a “traditional” will.

For service members, a military will can be:

  • Oral or written
  • Completed even if the service member is a minor
  • Witnessed by one person instead of two, or not witnessed at all
  • Drafted by a service member in any physical or mental condition
  • Be applied only to the estate of the person writing the will and not always to real estate

Some of these considerations are important if a service member suddenly is in a dangerous situation or is injured.

For a traditional will, the person completing the will must be of sound mind, an adult, state the document is their will, and have two or three witnesses attest to the signed will.

VA Will Services and Counseling

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides free financial planning and online will preparation to survivors of a service member. This applies to those who are beneficiaries as part of the following programs: Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI), Traumatic Injury Protection (TIP), Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (FSGL) and Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI).

The service helps surviving family members plan for a future without their loved ones. Help comes through an independent company called Financial Point. The service is available for two years from the date a claim is paid from one of the four programs listed above and includes 40 hours of free counseling access via online resources.

This service also provides a free online will preparation service to survivors. After answering a series of questions online, the survivor receives a legal will that is valid in all states once it is signed.

Other Estate Planning Help for Veterans and Beneficiaries

In addition to the military legal assistance offered survivors through the VA, other help is available to service members for military estate planning and wills.

A service member dealing with debt could speak to a nonprofit credit counselor, who will consult over the phone at no charge and offer guidance and advice on the best ways to eliminate the debt.

When it comes to estate planning, a service member should have several important documents completed. Among them are power of attorney and a military living will.

If the service member does not feel the SGLI covers his or her dependents adequately, he or she could consider buying another life insurance policy on their own. Again, AFLA can help, and if it can’t, it will refer a service member to an attorney.

Managing financial affairs can be complicated for anyone, but for service members it’s important these issues be taken care of early in a service member’s career.

About The Author

Pat McManamon

Pat McManamon has been a journalist for more than 25 years. His experience has mainly been in sports, but the world of athletics requires knowledge of business and economics. He also can balance a checkbook and keep track of investments with Quicken quite adeptly. McManamon’s experience includes covering the NFL for ESPN, LeBron James for the Akron Beacon Journal and AOL Fanhouse, and the Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes for the Palm Beach Post.


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