Do You Have a Will?
Without one, your estate and even your children could end up in the wrong hands
More than half of all adult Americans don’t have a will, according to a recent survey. This is one case where being in the majority isn’t necessarily a good thing.
If you’re part of that group, either because you think you don’t need a will or you just haven’t gotten around to making one, you might want to reconsider.
Here’s why: Even if your assets are relatively modest, a will can ensure that they’ll go where you want them to if you die. If you die without a will, your assets will be distributed by a court-appointed administrator and might not end up with the people or charitable organizations you would have preferred. It’s also more expensive to distribute assets when you don’t have a will and haven’t named an executor to distribute your estate, the American Bar Association notes.
If you have children under 18, a will is even more essential. A will is where you name a guardian for your children should something happen to you and/or your partner. Without a named guardian a court will decide who becomes your children’s legal guardian.
Some of your assets won’t be affected by whether you have a will. They include life insurance policies and retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k) plans. Their proceeds would go to the beneficiaries you named as part of those agreements (a good reason to check your beneficiary designations periodically and update them as needed). But most of the things you own would be dispersed according to the instructions in your will, such as any stocks, bonds or mutual funds, as well as your home, car, family heirlooms and other possessions.
Preparing a will
You can hire a lawyer to prepare your will. That isn’t essential, although a capable lawyer can sometimes point out angles that you might not have considered. Because the laws can vary by state, you’ll want to look for someone with estate planning experience in the state where you live. Your lawyer-uncle who lives halfway across the country might not be the best choice, even if the price is right.
If you can’t afford a lawyer, you may be able to get help from a local legal-aid agency or nearby law school. You can also buy do-it-yourself software that will guide you through the steps of preparing your own will.
Other documents you may need
In addition to a will, you might want to think about several other legal documents that could be useful someday.
- Durable power of attorney. If you become incapacitated, this document authorizes a person you’ve appointed to handle financial matters, such as paying bills, on your behalf.
- Durable power of attorney for health care. Also called a medical power of attorney, it authorizes someone you trust to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. In both of these cases, the word “durable” simply means that the power remains in effect after a person becomes incapacitated.
- Living will. Not to be confused with a regular will, which goes into effect when you die, a living will lets you specify the kinds of medical treatment you want or don’t want if you become incapacitated and are unlikely to recover. It is also called an advance directive.
- Social media will. A relatively new twist, this document, sometimes called a digital will, gives control over your online assets, such as social media profiles, e-mail accounts, photos and blogs, to a person you appoint. One reason to create a separate social media will is that your conventional will can become part of public record after your death, and you might not want your passwords and other online information available for all to see.
When to update it
Once you have a will, you should review it periodically and update it after any major life events, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child or the death of a beneficiary or your executor.
Where to keep it
You’ll want your will and other documents, such as any durable powers of attorney, to be accessible should anything happen to you. So make sure that someone you trust knows where these documents can be found. You can also keep copies on file at your lawyer’s office. If they are locked away in a safe-deposit box that no one else is authorized to open, that could result in a delay in making your wishes known.