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A last will and testament, more commonly known as a will, is a document that advises how a person (testator) wishes their property and assets to be distributed after their death. A will is also where you state your wishes regarding the care of any children you may have.

When you die, you are unable to express your desires. A will is there to instruct someone (an executor) to carry out these wishes for you. Most adults should have a will.

If you’re married, you need a will.

Without a will, your spouse is likely to inherit everything. But don’t leave this to chance.

In addition, if there are certain things you rather pass on to someone other than your spouse, a will is your opportunity to make this known.

For example, in many states, if you die while married and have a child from a previous marriage, your spouse receives everything and your child receives nothing. With a will, you can make sure your child from your previous marriage inherits assets as well.

Keep in mind that any asset that is also in your spouse’s name cannot be left to someone else. For example, if your vehicle is titled in both you and your spouse’s name, you cannot leave the car to your sister.

If you’re in a long-term relationship, but not married, you need a will.

Married couples are legally eligible to inherit each other’s assets at death. Unmarried couples do not have this luxury.

If you die without a will, your property will pass according to what are called intestate succession laws. Intestate succession laws distribute your property to your closest family members. These laws do not cater to significant others. Your partner will have to fight in court to prove they have rights to your assets and property. Without formal documentation, these battles are hard to win.

If you have children, you need a will.

Without a will, your children are on deck to inherit everything after your spouse. But, again, do not leave this to chance. If this is your wish, put it in writing in your will so there is no room for error. In addition, if there is something that you don’t want one of (or all of) your kids to inherit, then that needs to be in writing.

The most important reason to have a will if you have children is to name a guardian. The named guardian will be responsible for raising your minor children should their other parent be unable to.

It’s important to routinely update your will to include any future children. Consider including a provision for future children to ensure that none of your dependents are left out of your will, even if you die before your will is updated to reflect his or her existence.

If you die without a will and the other parent isn’t an option, the guardianship decision falls to the courts. Your preferred option may not be who the legal system ultimately chooses; leaving the person you truly wanted to be the guardian to go to court to fight for custody. The whole situation can be avoided by specifically naming this person in your will.

The most important reason to have a will if you have children is to name a guardian.

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If you care about what happens to your assets and property, you need a will.

Perhaps you’re not married. Maybe you don’t have children. But if you have assets of any kind, you should still consider writing a will.

If you die, what happens to your stuff? Who is in charge of making these decisions?

To ensure your loved ones aren’t struggling managing it all, your will can ease their stress.

Want to use the money in your savings account to pay off your vehicle in order to give it to a needy friend? Your will can state these wishes.

Do you want all your clothes to go to your best friend? Your will can state this.

Do you want to contribute 50% of your positive net worth to your favorite charity? You can state this in your will.

What happens if I pass away and have a will?

Your will becomes a public document after your death. It then goes through the probate process to ensure it’s valid.

Once validity is proven, the executor you named in your will begins the process of carrying out your wishes. If no executor is named, the court appoints one.

What happens if I pass away and don’t have a will?

If you die without a will, this is called dying intestate. A court-appointed administrator will compile any assets in your name, pay any liabilities, and distribute the remaining assets to those parties deemed as beneficiaries.

How assets are distributed is determined by the intestate laws of your specific state. In most cases, your property is distributed in split shares to your “heirs,” which could include your surviving spouse, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews, and distant relatives. Generally, when no relatives can be found, the entire estate goes to the state.

Read more about dying intestate and the ins and outs of a will in this post: The Importance of Writing a Will

How do I write a will?

Making a will can be simple and inexpensive. You can even do it yourself. There are many online DIY programs. Whether you write out your will or use an electronic template, you need to ensure it’s signed and dated by you and witnesses.

Keep a copy of your will in a secure place and be sure to tell someone about it. Tell your beneficiaries, your financial planner, an attorney, or any other trusted individual. Upon your death, don’t let your family wonder if you had a will or not. This undue stress is avoidable.

If you have a large estate or a complex family situation, hiring a lawyer may be advisable. Estate planning can be tricky if there are many aspects involved and you don’t want to make any mistakes that could cause your loved ones stress or lose out on an inheritance.

Also know that your will and your life insurance policies are completely separate, yet you need to have both. A will simply tells an executor who gets what when you die. A life insurance policy replaces your income when you die so your family isn’t financially impacted.

Updating your will does not update your life insurance policies. Be sure to update both as needed.

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About the writer

Headshot of Natasha Cornelius, a life insurance writer, for Quotacy, Inc.

Natasha Cornelius

Marketing Content Manager

Natasha is a writer and content editor at Quotacy. She is also co-host of Quotacy’s YouTube series. She can't get enough of life insurance and outside of work is also working toward her Chartered Life Underwriter designation. Connect with her on LinkedIn.