All the bizarre state regulations that trigger if you die without a will. We cover why a will is important for even young couples with children and single professionals, among others. We also cover a few recommendations on how to get started and how to get a will completed in half an hour.
Wills aren’t exactly the sexiest topic of conversation. I get it. Compared to skydiving, the latest football game, and that weird cat video your friend sent you, the discussion of your potential untimely demise and a dense legal document accompanying it isn’t exactly scintillating. However, an hour of your time now can save your loved ones a ton of heartache (and even thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars) down the road.
I’ve had a will since I was 26, and I highly recommend you consider one, too.
At its heart, a will is actually a very simple document. You simply outline how you wish your assets to be distributed upon your death. Many folks think creating a will is costly and time consuming, but that doesn’t have to be true. You can create a will with a legal template maker, and one of the strongest ways to ensure the will will stand up to any challenges is to have witnesses to your signing of the will; neither of these things has to cost much at all. I created my will with Quicken’s WillMaker product. It cost something like $20-25, and I can use it to make wills for as many people as I like, and change it as many times as I like.
If you don’t have a will when you pass, you will have died “intestate”. That means your estate will be divided based on your state’s intestate succession laws, and you might be surprised by how they differ from your wishes.
Here are a few common issues that arise, which a will can solve. We will go roughly in order of least to most problematic.
Parents vs. Siblings:
We’ll start with the young whippersnappers. Maybe you graduated from college just a few years ago. You’re single with no children, and you’re living the young professional life in a big city. If you pass, who do you want your assets to go to? In most states, 100% of your assets go to your parents. If no parents survive you, then it is divided amongst your siblings. If you are estranged from your parents, you probably want to make different arrangements. If you have a toxic brother, perhaps you don’t want him inheriting your hard-earned cash. Maybe it’s the couple next door who treated you like their own that you want to reap the rewards of your labor. You will have to override your state’s intestate laws with explicit instructions, in the form of a will.
Providing for Pets
If you have a fuzzy family member, odds are you care about what happens to them when you pass. A will allows you not only to name a line of folks who can assume care for your pet, but also enables you to apportion a certain amount of your estate to go towards the care of that animal.
Spousal Inheritance – Or Accidentally Not?
Many people mistakenly think that if they die, 100% of their assets will go to their spouse. That is not necessarily the case. For example, if you have kids, most states will actually divide your estate between your spouse and your kids. Only 16 states have adopted some sort of rule which allows your spouse to inherit 100% if you have no kids outside of marriage with this spouse. In other states, the split may be ⅓ of your assets to the spouse and the rest divided among your kids, or ½ to your spouse and the rest divided among your kids. Accounts like a brokerage account which are joint and have rights of survivorship will pass directly to the surviving account owner, but anything considered your estate alone are up for grabs.
This may not seem like a big issue, but it can be. Imagine an eight-year old inheriting several hundred thousand dollars that your spouse needs to live off in retirement. Remember, when the kid is of legal age, they will walk away with that money. And in the meanwhile, your spouse has to deal with the hassle of separate accounting for those assets that don’t actually belong to them.
I have heard of cases where the division required by intestate laws required the family home to be sold in order to successfully apportion assets, but I’m not a lawyer and haven’t confirmed. How disruptive. How brutal.
If you have kids from a previous marriage, don’t forget that they may also count in the division of assets. So again, the money you thought your spouse would live off in retirement? He or she may be hundreds of thousands poorer than you think once the shares of all your children from different marriages get their share.
Custody of Your Children
If you have children, I think there’s no excuse for you not to have a will. In a will, you can outline who you would like to give custody of your children. Perhaps you’ve discussed with your sister that you’d like her to take on the duties, and she’s agreed. That’s that, you think.
Surviving Family Disagrees
Perhaps your parents were unaware of this ‘discussion’ between you and your sibling, and feel they would be better equipped to take on their precious grandchildren. Or maybe they verbally agreed when you told them years ago but have a change of heart during the emotional time after your death. If they or anyone else challenge your sister’s claim, they’re in for a long, drawn out custody battle in which your children suffer.
Worse, imagine the toxic in-laws whom you and your spouse have cut out of your life come knocking. They want custody of your kids (and maybe all the financial assets that come along with the duty). Are you going to trust the well-being and financial lives of your children to the outcome of a he said-she said argument between family members? Why leave such an important thing to chance when it could so easily be nailed down?
Family Member Changes His/Her Mind
Back to your sister. Maybe when you asked her at your child’s birth, it made all the sense in the world. Now, 10 years later she’s going through a divorce, is jobless, has five kids of her own – one of whom has significant medical issues that require her time and attention – or has had other life circumstances change which make it difficult to do right by your kids? Is there a clear line of succession if one candidate refuses?
In a will, you can lay down this order in concrete terms.
Financial Well-Being Of Your Children
Did you know you can appoint different people to be your child’s physical guardian and financial guardian? Perhaps your brother is fantastic at raising kids and has children of his own to raise alongside your little tike, but he’s terrible with money. You could make him the physical guardian of your child and then appoint your sister-in-law, the sharpshooter banker living the jetsetting life, as the financial guardian managing your child’s assets and apportioning the withdrawals every year to pay for your child’s care.
A will allows you to make this division clear, as well as provide clear order of succession if one candidate refuses the job or becomes unable to continue in the role.
Unmarried Partners (Long-Term Couples, Engaged Partners, etc):
Intestate laws are notoriously brutal on couples who are not legally married. If you have a long-term partner or even a fiance, you are doing them a huge disservice by leaving things up to chance. If you are not legally married at the time of your death, often they will be left with absolutely nothing. Some combination of your blood relations – children, parents, and sibling – will inherit everything you own.
Examples of Default Inheritance Rules
We covered a few of the more common ways in which inheritance plans go awry without a will, but there are plenty of other freak scenarios which could occur. One eye-opener is simply to examine what the intestate laws of your state are so you can see for yourself whether you would agree in the various circumstances..
Here are just a few example of intestate succession laws in different states. Charts are provided by Nolo. You can search for “Nolo Intestate Succession (Your State)” if you’d like to get a quick read of what things look like in your state.
|If you die with:||Here’s what happens:|
|If you die with:||Here’s what happens:|
Of course, even if you agree with the intestate rules in your state, there’s no guarantee you’ll still be there when you pass. What if you took a job in a new state? Are you going to remember to check the laws when you move, and keep up with any changes throughout the years? Why not spend a half hour or hour building your own will and avoiding all this constant shifting and uncertainty?
Options for Writing Your Will
You can, of course, reach out to a lawyer to help you draft your will. Fortunately, however, wills are a common item and there are several more inexpensive options you can pursue.
- Statutory Forms: Several states actually offer official forms you can fill out
- Book: You can use a book which will walk you through the process of creating a will
- Will Software/Online Service: You can use a software program like Quicken Willmaker or an online service like Legalzoom to build your will. This is the method I used. As I mentioned above, I created my wills with Quicken Willmaker, which you can purchase a copy of for about $20-25. It has allowed me to build wills for myself and my husband as well as update those wills as things in my life change (for example, having a kid).
Key Tip: Make sure you have two witnesses for the signing or acknowledgment of your will. Wills which have no witnesses have a difficult time standing up in court if challenged by a family member. You also have the option of having the will notarized (witnessed by a licensed notary public) if you’d like added security. Notary publics are pretty easy to find – UPS offers notarization services at thousands of their locations, as an example.
How Long Does The Process Take?
I personally found the selection process to take the most time (about half an hour). The actually will-making process probably took me 10-15 minutes, plus another 15-20 minutes reading it over and looking up different terms because I’m anal and like to understand everything front to back. Depending on how much research you like to do, the whole process could take you anywhere from 15 minutes to about an hour from the time you leave this article to the time you have a completed will in your hands.
Even if you are young and healthy, a will is almost certainly a worthwhile project for you. With the investment of perhaps a half hour of your time, you can secure the future of your loved ones.
Do you have a will? Any tips on what to pay attention to or things you wish you’d known?