A whopping 78% of millennials don’t have a will, according to a Caring.com study.
But here’s the thing: wills are not just for retired and wealthy people. Most people need a will no matter how much or how little money they have.
You won’t live forever. There’s a 100% chance you will die at some point. What will happen to your property and belongings after you pass away?
Here’s what you need to know to decide if you need a will and how it can protect your loved ones.
What is a Will?
A will is a legal document. It instructs your family on how to handle your affairs after your life ends.
When you die, your belongings and legal obligations can end up in probate court.
Probate is the legal process that handles the distribution of property after death. The judge reads the will and asks the executor to pass out the assets accordingly.
An executor can be a family member, friend or trusted party named in the will or appointed by the court. They’re responsible for distributing your assets according to your directions.
What Does an Executor Do?
After being officially appointed by the court, the executor has the legal capacity and obligation to act on your behalf.
- Close investment, retirement and bank accounts
- Sign documents to list and sell your home and other belongings
- File income taxes for you
- Pay off your debts using your assets
As you can see, it’s essential that you choose an executor you trust to manage your money and belongings responsibly.
When Should I Make a Will?
Many people say they don’t have time to make a will or think they don’t need one because they’re young.
But a will is an essential part of your estate plan. It’s where you put in writing who should take care of your children, assets or pets when you pass away. It can also say what you want to happen with the things you own.
Here’s when you should make a will.
If You Are Married
Probate and estate laws that govern how your assets are distributed after death are complex. You might think your spouse will automatically get everything when you pass.
But that isn’t always the case. Only a will can make sure your spouse inherits everything you want them to receive.
Without a will, your personal belongings and bank accounts could end up in the hands of other family members.
If You Have Kids
If you have children, you absolutely should have a will. The will can specify who you want the children to live with after you die.
Without a will designating guardianship, the court gets to decide who is responsible for caring for your child. If family members can’t agree, the legal battle could be long and ugly. In a worst-case scenario, your child has additional emotional scars on top of losing a parent too early.
Without a will, a court would also decide what the child can inherit. If they are minors, they may not own property until they reach the age of majority. Meanwhile, another adult would have to act as a fiduciary to oversee their inheritance. And you want it to be someone you trust.
If You’re Single
Yes, even single people need a will. Without it, you have no control over who inherits your things because your state’s probate laws determine who gets your property. Usually, that’s parents, children or siblings.
If none of those people are alive, your belongings could go to more distant relatives like cousins, aunts and uncles.
But a will lets you say who gets what.
What Happens If You Don’t Have a Will?
If you die without a will, you die intestate. Like many legal terms, “intestate” comes from the Latin language and means “without a will.”
When this happens, a judge defers to your state's intestacy laws to determine who receives your property.
You don’t have a say in who gets what, and neither does your family.
If you are part of a family with a myriad of marriages, step-, adopted and natural children, things can get out of hand fast if you don't leave a will.
While every state is different in distributing property, you might be surprised at what the law says. For instance, intestate laws in Michigan say that if you’re married but have no children with your current spouse, your spouse’s parents get a big chunk of what they leave behind.
To make sure your loved ones inherit the things you want them to have, you need a will.
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Look at Your Family First
Most wills include standard language spelling out what happens to your property when you pass away. But you must also look at your family’s individual needs to add specific provisions.
Do you have a child with special needs? Do you have minor children? A blended family? Multiple marriages? Unmarried partners? Do you own a business?
Those situations can create chaos and lead to broken relationships, even in the best of families.
Even if you don't think you have many assets, a will can make life less complicated.
What Other Documents Support My Estate Plan?
Remember that a will is just part of your estate plan. An estate plan encompasses the legal documents and decisions surrounding your death. You may also need:
- Guardianship designation: Assign a permanent caretaker for your minor or special-needs children.
- Advance directive: Explains how you want medical decisions about you to be made if you're unable to decide yourself. This can also be called a living will.
- Health care proxy: Also called a durable medical power of attorney, it allows you to appoint someone with the specific authority to make medical decisions if you’re unable to.
- Power of attorney: Gives the person you specify the authority to act on your behalf and make legal and financial decisions.
- Beneficiary designations: Some assets, like a 401(k) or life insurance policy, allow you to name a beneficiary and don’t need to be included in the will.
- Trust: Becomes effective immediately while you're still alive and lets you appoint someone to manage your assets if you become incapacitated or die.
- Life insurance: Pays a death benefit when you pass away to help your loved ones pay funeral expenses, set up college funds, pay debts and cover living expenses.
- Pets: Don’t forget to plan for your furry companions. Many animals end up in shelters, classified ads or become euthanized if the family doesn't want to take care of them.
How Do I Get a Will?
If you own a complex and large estate, you may need to work with an estate attorney. But for most people, a straightforward will with supporting documents is all you may need.
Fortunately, setting up a will doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.
An online service like Trust & Will can generate customized and complete legal documents in about 20 minutes. You could walk away with a will, guardianship forms or other legal estate documents backed by experienced attorneys.
When you use Trust & Will, you get a complete estate planning package to put your affairs in order.
And when you’re satisfied with the document and ready to make it official? They’ll ship the paperwork directly to you.
Once you get the documents in-hand, you must typically sign them in front of a witness and a notary to make them legal.
And that’s it. You get affordable estate planning that’s specific to your situation. Plus, if you get married or divorced, have a child or experience another life change, you can review and update your estate plan online with Trust & Will.
What About a Trust? Do I Need a Trust?
A trust is similar to a will because it helps you manage your assets after you pass away. The biggest difference is that a will goes through probate court, while a trust can avoid court in most cases.
Before you jump to the conclusion that you need a trust, remember they aren’t for everyone.
For instance, you can’t name a guardian to care for your children or specify funeral arrangements in a trust. Only a will lets you do that.
You must also transfer ownership of your assets to your trust for it to be effective. That means you don’t own your property … your trust does. But you can appoint yourself as the trustee and have complete control over your belongings, even though they’re in the trust.
Trusts come in all sizes and shapes and can be an essential part of your estate plan in the right situation.
If you think you need a trust, Trust & Will can create a trust-based estate plan for you. A trust from Trust & Will can give you more control over how and when your belongings are distributed.
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Where Should I Keep My Wills and Trusts?
You should keep your legal documents in a safe place:
- Fireproof safe in your house
- Bank deposit box
- Filed with your local probate court
- With your named executor
Make sure your family knows where to find your will or trust if you pass away unexpectedly. It's wise to keep your will with other essential documents, such as:
- Divorce decree, adoption papers, prenuptial agreements
- Vehicle titles and house deed
- Loan details (car, student, business, credit card, personal)
When Should I Update My Will?
To stay current, review and update your will often. Specifically, plan to review and update your will every few years or whenever you have a significant life change:
- Marriage or divorce
- Birth or adoption of a child
- A child becomes a legal adult
- Buy a new home or move to another state
- Buy property in another state
- Inherit a considerable value of money or property
- Start or sell a business
- Start a new job with substantial pay change
If your will is out of date when you die, you're out of luck. Your family could contest your will, but it could be costly, and there's no guarantee the judge will go against what you put in writing before you pass away.
Do I Need a Will?
If you died today, would you leave behind any property or money? What loose ends must be tied up?
And what happens to your money, personal items, children, spouse, pet or business?
A will helps your loved ones address those concerns after your death.
While some people have complicated estate planning needs, a will is the foundation and might be all you need.
No one likes to think about end-of-life planning, but it's a universal truth for us all.
You show your family how much you love them by putting your affairs in order with a will and other legal documents. Leaving a good estate plan makes life a lot easier and less stressful for those you leave behind.
Wills can be simple or complex. When you have the basics in place, a will can make distributing your assets straight forward. Even if you own little right now, getting a will in place now is a smart move. You can always update it later when life brings new changes.
To set up a will or trust in the comfort of your home, try Trust & Will's online service. It's secure and fast so that you can scratch estate planning off your to-do list.
Still wondering, “Do I Need a Will”? Is this your estate plan situation complicated or straightforward?
Please let us know in the comments below.