Whether or not you have a lot of assets, it can still be a good idea to get a will.
A will states who gets your things and can name a guardian for your minor children
Even if you don’t have many assets, a will is an important part of an estate plan
Creating a will doesn’t have to be expensive and you can even get a will without a lawyer
You need a will because if you die without one, state law will determine who gets your things and who takes care of your minor children. A last will and testament states who should receive your property and assets, allows you to appoint a guardian for any minor children, and names an executor to handle all the estate affairs. Without a will in place when you die, there are no clear instructions for family members and loved ones to follow.
People who are married, have children, or many assets especially need a will. However, people who don’t fall into those categories can also benefit from creating a will — having even one specific asset to give away to another person is reason enough, and since getting a valid will doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, it’s an easy way to start your estate plan.
A will is a legal document that states what happens to your estate — the collection of everything you own — when you die. You can use a will to give away your property and assets to friends, family, and even organizations and businesses. The people or entities that receive your assets are your beneficiaries.
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.” Who gets your property and possession will be the probate court’s decision, since you didn’t name any proper beneficiaries in a will. The judge will determine your heirs based on laws of intestate succession, which typically awards a surviving spouse and next of kin. The intestacy law is different in every state and the person you want to inherit your assets may not end up getting anything.
Learn more about the consequences of dying without a will.
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If you have any assets to pass along and you want specific people to receive them then you should get a will. Even if the assets are of sentimental value, you may still want to get a will to ensure the person you want to receive them when you die actually does. Here are some scenarios when you need a will:
The surviving spouse of a deceased person will likely get some or all assets when there is no will, so if you want someone other than a spouse to inherit something, then you may need a will to state what you want to happen. For example, if you set aside something for your siblings you need to write a will and include them in it because they may not inherit anything otherwise depending on your state law. With your will, you can make a specific bequest to anyone, or assign portions of your aggregate to estate to different people.
Related article: See how much a surviving spouse receives when there is no will in your state.
It is especially important for people with minor children to get a will, since a will allows parents to name a guardian for them. If the child’s other parent predeceased you, then the state will appoint a guardian for your minor children when you die if you haven’t named anyone in your will. This guardian may not be the person you wanted.
If you have a lot of assets and property like real estate, then it should come as no surprise that you may need 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. The probate process can take longer for larger estates.
If you expect to die very wealthy, you may consider talking to an estate attorney to draw up your will. (They can also help you minimize federal estate tax, which is levied on estate worth at least $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021.)
A will allows you to make specific gifts, or bequests, which means you can name your brother to receive your rare record collection or that guitar he always admired. If you want to give away specific items, even if they’re only of sentimental value, you need a will to make sure this happens. (You can get a will tailored to your needs with step-by-step guidance by downloading the Policygenius app.)
Having a trust is not a reason to skip getting a will. A trust is a separate entity that holds assets and passes them along according to your wishes. Even if you’ve already set up a trust and transferred your property into it, you still might want to create a will. A pour-over will in particular can instruct any remaining assets you might have forgotten to transfer into your trust upon your death.
You can also have a will create a trust (called a testamentary trust upon your death.
Read more about different types of trusts.
In addition to the Policygenius app, there are a number of different ways to create a will, like downloading a template or having an attorney prepare one for you. Writing a will can be a simple process, but writing a will that can hold up in court is more complicated. In order for a will to be valid, it needs to meet certain requirements, like being signed by the testator (will writer). You’ll want to make sure that the language is clear and unambiguous so that nobody can challenge its contents in court.
You can go find six easy steps to writing a will in this checklist.
There are a few things you should not include in a will. Anything with its own beneficiary designation — like payable-on-death accounts, assets in a trust, and a life insurance policy — can pass onto someone else without a will. (See the full list of what you should never put in your will.)
Remember that a will is a good foundation to any estate plan, but there are other essential documents you may consider adding.
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Elissa Suh is a personal finance editor at Policygenius in New York City. She has researched and written extensively about finance and insurance since 2019, with an emphasis in esate planning and mortgages. Her writing has been cited by MarketWatch, CNBC, and Betterment.
Elissa has a B.A. in Film Studies from Barnard College.
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