Updated December 14, 20215 min read
More than 60% of Americans don't have a will, according to Policygenius’s 2020 Estate Planning Survey. Yet a will isn't just for the wealthy. Married couples and parents especially need a will, and most others can also benefit as well — having even one specific asset to give away to another person is reason enough, and since getting a will doesn't have to cost a lot of money, it's an easy way to start your estate plan and prepare for the future.
Having life insurance is not an excuse to skip out on a will. You need a will to give away assets and property to the people of your choosing after you die, choose a guardian for your minor children, and name an executor to settle your affairs.
You need to write a will because if you die without one, state law will determine who gets your things and who takes care of your minor children.
Even if you don't have many assets, a will is an important part of an estate plan and creating it doesn't have to be expensive — you don't need a lawyer to make one.
A last will and testament is a legal document you can use to give away your property and assets to friends, family, and even organizations and businesses. While there is no legal requirement to get a will, dying without one makes things complicated. Without a will, you're said to have died "intestate." The probate court will decide who receives your property and appoint a personal administrator (in lieu of an executor you'd have chosen in the will) to handle your estate.
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You need a will to prevent a judge from determining your heirs based on state law, which typically awards a surviving spouse and next of kin. Intestate succession laws are different in every state and the person you wanted to inherit your assets may not end up receiving what you had left for them.
Whether you want your spouse to receive all of your assets when you die, or you want to divide your estate between your spouse and someone else (like parents or siblings) you need to write a will. Your spouse doesn’t necessarily inherit everything — which may or may not be what you wanted — depending on your state’s law, so writing a will allows you to leave explicit instructions. For example, you need a will to say you want to leave half of your assets to your sister and mother and the other half to your spouse.
Married couples who jointly own their assets or live in a community property state (where all spouses automatically have equal ownership over assets acquired during marriage) should still write a will — a joint will or separate mirror wills — to make sure they have a plan for giving away other assets and property.
If you want to leave assets for your domestic partner, you need a will to state that and what they will receive. Domestic partners may not automatically inherit another partner’s belongings, depending on state inheritance laws (which may operate separately from other laws about spousal benefits). Check with an estate attorney who knows the law in your area.
It’s no surprise that individuals with assets and property like real estate should get a will. The more assets you have, the more complex your estate may be, and the better you should plan for what happens when you die. (If you expect to die very wealthy, you may consider talking to an estate attorney who can help you minimize federal estate tax, which is levied on estates worth at least $12.06 million in 2022.)
But what if you don’t own any costly property? If you’re not wealthy, you may still have personal items and belongings that you care about. People who don’t have any assets can still benefit from a will to make sure their personal property is disposed of according to their wishes. A will allows you to make specific gifts, or bequests, even if they’re only of sentimental value, which means you can name your brother to receive your rare record collection or that guitar he always admired. While it may seem like nothing, planning ahead by writing a will can prevent arguments between loved ones after you die.
Your beneficiaries can be anyone you want — not just your children — so people who do not have children still need a will to give away assets to spouses, partners, friends, and other loved ones. You can leave something to a charity or organization, too.
A will also lets you name someone to settle your affairs — called an executor — so you need a will regardless of your family situation to appoint one. The executor's most basic duties involve executing the terms of your will and distributing the assets to your chosen beneficiaries, but they also settle your debts and file for probate when necessary.
Nearly everyone can benefit from making a will, and some people may need a trust, too. A trust can provide more security leaving something behind for your loved ones since it's a separate entity that holds assets and passes them along according to your wishes. You may need to trust to hold property on behalf of your minor child until they come of age to inherit the assets.
A will and living trust can even work together: you can make a will pour over any remaining assets you might have forgotten to transfer into your trust upon your death.
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