Most adults own something.  Whether that’s a house, a vehicle, valuable pieces of jewelry, or pets.  If you don’t want the state to decide where your assets go when you die or, more importantly, who will be in charge of your children and funds owed to them, then you better draw up a will.

What is a will?

A will is a legal document that states your wishes regarding what happens to your assets/property when you die and who is responsible for caring of minor children.

Why do I need a will?

Because you don’t want the state deciding where your assets go.

If you die without a will in place, the state will decide how your property is distributed.  This can include bank accounts, real estate, and any other assets you own.  Typically, if you are married your assets will go to your spouse or be split between your spouse and parents.  If you are married with children, likely everything goes to your spouse.  If you are single with no children, it all goes to your parents.  Whatever your situation, the state will decide what happens.  If this idea doesn’t sound all too appealing to you, then you need to draw up a will.

Because you don’t want the state deciding who raises your children.

In your will you can designate a person (guardian) to care for your children if you die before they become legal adults.  You can also designate a property guardian or trustee to manage your money for your children until they reach adulthood.  You can appoint one person to act as both personal and property guardian, or choose two people to carry out the separate roles.

If you and your partner both die without a will, the state courts and social services appoint someone to raise your children.  This may not be the person you had in mind.

Because you don’t want stress in the family.

Another, often forgotten, reason to have a will is to ensure no tension occurs within your family after you are gone.  Without a will, you may have relatives arguing over your possessions and everyone may want input on what should happen to your assets.  Sure, the state can be to blame if Aunt Beatrice doesn’t get that antique tea set she loved, but what happens when she asks for it and Aunt Lucy also says she wants it?  Drawing up a will ahead of time will lower the chance of strife between family members.

Because you are part of a blended family.

Blended families can benefit greatly from a will.  For example, Daniel is married but brought two children into the marriage from a former relationship.  He can dictate in his will that he would like half of his assets to go to his former partner, whom has equal custody of their children, and the rest to his spouse.

Because you are unmarried, but live with your partner.

Unmarried couples also need a will.  The state will only recognize relatives, so if one partner dies, none of their possessions will go to their surviving partner.  This could be devastating emotionally and financially.  Let’s say the deceased partner owned the home they were both living in and the surviving partner was simply paying a monthly (non-contractual) rent.  The surviving partner has no say in what happens to the house he/she is currently living in.  With a will, the homeowner can state the house is to be left to the partner versus it automatically going to his/her parents.

Because you love your pets.

And what about Fido?  For example, Jane is a single woman with no children but has a dog she loves more than anything.  Are her parents equipped and capable of taking care of Fido if something suddenly happened to Jane, or would the best friend who pet sits during vacations be the best person?  This is something you can dictate in your will.

Because you want to contribute to a charity.

Many people will state that they would like a portion of their assets to go to a favorite charity organization in their will.  It’s an easy way to contribute to a good cause.

In addition to naming asset distributions, a will can also be used to donate your organs, specify funeral arrangements, and state preferences about life support by creating a living will.  I want to advise you to talk with loved ones about these requests ahead of time as well, just in case your will isn’t discovered until after your funeral, which can happen.

What doesn’t a will cover?

Wills generally cover the bulk of your assets, but some factors trump wills.  Living in a community property state can affect how wills are recognized.  Life insurance policies also trump a will.  As an example, if you pass away and your will states you want your life insurance payout to go to your daughter, but your life insurance policy states your ex-spouse as your beneficiary, the payout will be going to your ex-spouse.  This is just one example as to why reviewing your financial portfolio annually and with every big life event is so important.  According to Investopedia, other items that are not covered by a will are retirement assets, assets owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, and investments accounts that are designed as “transfer on death”.

How do I create a will?

When you are ready to create a will, first compile a list of your assets and debts.  Decide how you wish debts to be paid and who is to receive remaining assets.  A basic will can be made inexpensively on your own online or you can hire a lawyer.  If you have a more complicated estate, be sure to work with an attorney who is familiar with your state laws.

When preparing to create a will it’s important to know:

  • In most states, you must be at least 18 years old.
  • It must be written in sound judgment and mental capacity.
  • The document needs to clearly state that at is in fact your will.
  • You need to name an executor who will ensure the wishes stated in your will are carried out.
  • Notarizing a will is not required, but you need to sign it in the presence of at least two witnesses.

For more information on writing a will, this webpage may be helpful.


Related Posts:

Your Family Financial Roadmap

Estate Planning 101 for Couples

What is a Trust?

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