A bequest is the act of giving or leaving something through a will. Specifically, a bequest refers to the transfer of personal property, such as money or household goods. (Although some people may use the term “bequest” to refer to real estate, traditionally bequests only involve personal property.) The transfer of real estate through a will is called a “devise.” When someone is said to “bequeath” property, that means that they have transferred the property through a will.

Bequests must be part of a valid will to be enforceable, and there are many state and federal laws that govern bequests. As a practical matter, much of the probate process is centered around determining whether bequests under the will are valid or not. 

Are There Different Types of Bequests?

Bequests refer to transfers of personal property. Personal property is any type of movable property that is not permanently affixed to a piece of land. Examples of personal property include jewelry, clothes, furniture, money, motor vehicles, and other items.

Courts often classify bequests into two main categories:

  • Conditional Bequests: These bequests are transferred only if a particular event has occurred (basically, there is a “condition” dictating the terms of the bequest). For example, a bequest that reads “I transfer my gold pocket watch to Jeff if he gets married” indicates that the watch is legally transferred to him if and when he gets married.
  • Executory Bequests: These bequests are granted only when a particular event happens in the future. (And if that event never happens, the bequest may never be granted.) For example, the bequest may be worded as “Jeff will receive my gold pocket watch when the San Francisco 49ers win the Super Bowl.” If the 49ers never win the Super Bowl, then Jeff will not receive the watch, much to his disappointment.

The difference between conditional and executory bequests is very small, and often confusing. However, the wording of the bequest and the language used can make all the difference. If you need help figuring out how to write a will provision, or if you need help interpreting what someone else wrote in a will, you may need to consult a qualified lawyer.

There are also different types of bequests, classified by what type of property is being specified in the bequest:

  • Specific Bequests: Specific bequests refer to specific pieces of property, transferring that specific property to a specific beneficiary. This bequest can include a variety of personal belongings, including jewelry, motor vehicles, and household items. While a specific bequest often involves giving the particular piece of property, it may also call for the sale of the property. For example, instead of receiving the motor vehicle itself, the will may call for the proceeds of the sale of a particular motor vehicle be given to a particular family member.
  • Demonstrative Bequests: This type of bequest is required to be paid from a specific fund or source, such as a particular bank account or the sale of stock in a designated corporation. For example, a bequest that gives “10 shares of Disney stock” to a beneficiary is a demonstrative bequest. However, it is important to keep in mind that companies are often bought or sold or merge into one another. Thus, you may want to include language stating what should happen if the designated company is acquired by another entity or changes its name.
  • General Bequests: A general bequest is a precise dollar amount or percentage that does not come from any designated asset. For example, a bequest that gives “$100 to my cousin Jenny” is a general bequest. However, this type of bequest may depend on the size of the overall estate. If you are concerned that there may not be enough assets to go around, you can provide a general bequest in the form of a percentage (such as “2% of my estate”) rather than a particular dollar amount. You can also consult an attorney to discuss how general bequests may be affected if the value of the estate increases or decreases.
  • Residuary Bequests: This type of bequest includes all other property that is not distributed in the other bequests in the will. Generally, this is the “catch-all” provision, what is “left over” after all other bequests are taken care of. Most of the time, this represents the bulk of the estate.

What is the Difference Between a Bequest and an Inheritance?

A bequest and an inheritance are basically two sides of the same coin. The bequest is the act of leaving something to another person through a will. The inheritance, on the other hand, describes the process and rights a person has to property or assets after the death of a spouse or relative. Most inheritances involve money or other tangible property (such as real estate, household items, jewelry, or motor vehicles).

What if I Have a Dispute Regarding a Bequest?

One of the most common difficulties that comes up in estate matters is a contested will, with many contests involving a dispute over what the property owner intended to do with particular property. Will contests generally require court hearings in order to resolve the issue that is being disputed by the heirs. Often, this process can take quite a while, with the court examining all the evidence in the matter in order to make its determination. 

In some cases, the testator (the creator of the will) can include an anti-contest provision in the will. This clause basically disqualifies the beneficiary from receiving their inheritance if they choose to contest the will.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer For Help With Bequests?

If you are drafting a will or trying to understand a bequest in a will that has already been drafted, it is in your best interests to consult a qualified estate attorney. Understanding how bequests work is necessary to make sure that the right people receive the correct property when the time comes. 

Your attorney can help you properly draft your bequests, and can provide valuable advice and guidance when it comes to property distribution. If you need help understanding a will that has already been drafted or are involved in a will contest, your attorney can help guide you through the court process.