Q

Do I need a will?

A

Almost everyone can benefit from a will whether or not they have a lot of assets. A will is especially important if you have minor children.

Elissa

By

Elissa Suh

Elissa Suh

Personal Finance Editor

Elissa Suh is a senior editor of estate planning at Policygenius in New York City. She has researched and written extensively about wills, trusts, and personal finance since 2019, with an eye towards making difficult (and at times gloomy) topics easy to understand for readers. Her articles and data stories has been cited by the likes of MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

Updated March 18, 2021|5 min read

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More than 60% of Americans don’t have a will according to Policygenius' annual Estate Planning Survey. Without a will, there are no clear instructions for a deceased person’s family members and loved ones in regards to what happens to their money and belongings, which is why it’s imperative to get a will. When preparing for your future, you need a will so you can:

  • Give away assets and property after you die

  • Choose a guardian for minor children

  • Name an executor to settle your affairs

A will isn’t just for the wealthy. Married couples and parents especially need a will, and most others can also benefit — 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.

Key Takeaways

  • You should 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

  • Creating a will doesn't have to be expensive and you don't need a lawyer to make one

Who needs a will? 

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. The people or entities that receive your assets are your beneficiaries

Wills also let you name an estate executor, whose most basic duties involve executing the terms of your will and distributing the assets to your chosen beneficiaries. The executor also settles a decedent’s debts, pays and files taxes, and guides the deceased’s estate through the probate process

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Here are some scenarios when you need a will:

You have children

It is especially important for parents to get a will if they have minor children, since a will allows them to name a guardian. In the event that both parents die without naming anyone in their will, the state must select a guardian, which may not be the person they had intended to appoint. If you have children from a previous marriage or don’t want your children to inherit equally you also need to get a will to state what they should receive.

You’re married 

If you’re married, you can create an estate plan with your spouse by making a joint will or separate mirror wills. Your surviving spouse will likely get some or all of your assets when you die without a will, but if you want someone other than a spouse to inherit something as well, then you should get a will to explicitly lay out what you want to happen. For example, if you set aside some money for your siblings, you need to include them in your will because they may not inherit anything otherwise, depending on your state law. 

Check out our guide on how to make a will in my state to see how much your surviving spouse would inherit if you don’t have a will.

You who want to make a specific gift

If you want to give away a particular asset, even if it’s only of sentimental value, you need a will to make sure the proper person receives it. 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. 

You can get a will tailored to your needs with step-by-step guidance from Policygenius.

You have a trust or want to create one

Having a living 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.

You’re wealthy and have a large estate

If you’re a high net-worth individual with many 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 generally takes longer for larger estates and there is more opportunity for someone to challenge your will. (Learn more: How long does probate take?)

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 estates worth at least $11.7 million in 2021.)

Is a will necessary?

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’ve chosen ahead of time) to handle your estate. 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. For example, you don’t want to leave your loved ones fighting over who gets to keep your house if you die without a will.

Learn more about the consequences of dying without a will.

What do I need to make a will?

There are a number of different ways to create a will, including online wills which allow you to make a will without a lawyer. Getting a will can be a simple process, but writing a will that can hold up in court is more complicated. (A poorly constructed will can cause headaches during probate, just as if you hadn’t written a will at all.)

In order for a will to be valid, it needs to meet certain requirements, like being signed by the testator (will writer) and two witnesses, while following all other rules set out by your state. You can get a state-specific will with Policygenius using attorney-approved tools. 

What to include

A will can be fairly straightforward document and your will should include:

  • Personal information like your name and address

  • Assets and property you want to pass on

  • Beneficiaries

  • Executor and guardian

Read about things to include in a will.

Some things don’t have a place in your will. Any assets with their own beneficiary designation — like payable-on-death accounts or trust assets — 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 a few other essential estate planning documents you may consider adding.