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Leaving a Legacy

What Is a Will and Why Do You Need One?

A man is holding important easy to prepare will documents from Mama Bear Legal Forms.

5 Minute Read

Think of making a will . . . you’re picturing a scary meeting with a lawyer and a document packed with legal jargon, right? Plus, you’re thinking of older folks—for sure not anyone as young as you! So, why is it so important for you to have a will?

The best way to look at it is this: It’s too important for you not to have one. Because when you break it down, a will is a simple, must-have document. It gives you control. And most importantly—for your loved ones who are grieving your passing, it takes away the drama of potential court battles over your assets.

These reasons alone are why you need one, but there are plenty more! So, let’s dig deeper . . .

What Is a Will?

A will (or last will and testament) is a signed, legally binding document that explains exactly how you want your property and other stuff to be handled after your death.

You can also put information in there about how specific items are to be dealt with, and even appoint guardians for your children if you need to.

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Making a will means you can decide beforehand where you’d like your things to go after you’re gone. That’s what a last will and testament is all about: your say in who handles your estate or gets all your stuff. Single or married, it matters.

What Happens If I Die Without a Will?

When you die without a will, it’s called dying intestate. Each state has their own laws around intestacy. Basically it means you haven’t put down your after-death wishes in writing, so the government steps in. Then the matter goes to court and something called a “probate process” kicks off, to settle things.

This is when your family could find themselves in the middle of legal squabbles over your estate. Things become more complex (and emotional for loved ones) if you have children from a previous marriage, or if you and your current partner aren’t married. Making a will is the best way to state what you want to happen, instead of the state making that decision for you.    

What to Include in a Will

Once you’ve decided what type of will fits your needs, what should go in it? As a bare minimum, you should include:

  1. The Executor, or Personal Representative – You’ll appoint someone who will make sure your wishes are carried out to a T. This might be a lawyer you’ve hired if your will is a bit complicated. But many people just choose a level-headed and honest relative. One of your adult children or a close family friend would do just fine. Your Personal Representative will do more than just read the will. They’ll also ensure all other end-of-life business gets taken care of correctly.
  2. The Beneficiaries – If you’re married, this might be as straightforward as just naming your spouse as the one who receives all your assets. But you’ll definitely want to have some other beneficiaries named in case your spouse isn’t still alive when you pass away.
  3. The Inheritance Instructions – Next, you’ll want to spell out what you want each of the beneficiaries to receive. If you have children, it could be a percentage of your assets or a dollar amount you want each of them to have. The instructions could also include specific items you're leaving to friends and family members. It’s all up to you!
  4. The Guardians – If you still have children who are minors, you’ll want your will to specify who will take care of them when you’re gone. Maybe it goes without saying, but you’ll want to talk with your choice of guardians before naming them in the will. This decision shouldn’t be taken lightly.

What Does a Will Not Cover?

There are some assets that a will can’t control in terms of where they go, so you should make a note in your will about where these documents can be found:

  • Retirement Funds – Your company 401(k) account or IRA accounts will already have beneficiaries named for them in the original documents.
  • Life Insurance Policy or Policies – The beneficiary, or beneficiaries, for your life insurance are also taken care of separately from your will.
  • Joint Tenancy Assets – If you and someone else (like your spouse) hold a joint title to anything (like a house, a bank account, a vehicle), then the ownership would automatically pass to the surviving person.

If you want to make changes to the people receiving these assets, contact the fund manager or insurance and title companies directly. Don’t assume changing the beneficiaries in your will means these documents will be changed too. It’s a separate matter altogether, but should really be coordinated.

Do I Need a Will?

Yes, you need a will. Whether you’re young and single, have five kids, or you’re older and have no family, we all have more than we think to our name. A will is your chance to directly say how your assets and everything you hold dear are distributed after you die.

Your will can be as simple or as detailed as you like, to suit you and your life. And you can update it as your life changes. The peace of mind this gives you is worth the few moments it takes to create.

Best of all, making a will has come a long way from long meetings with an attorney: You can easily create your will online. Get your will set up today!