What do you picture when you think of making a will? Maybe you imagine a scary meeting with a lawyer and a document packed with legal jargon. Or maybe you’ve felt the heartache of losing a loved one and the headache of settling their estate without a will.
The truth is, wills are too important for you not to have one. Because when you break it down, a will gives you control over your stuff. And while life isn’t all about stuff, stating exactly what you want to happen protects your grieving loved ones by taking away the drama of potential court battles over your assets.
These reasons alone should make it clear why you need one of these simple documents, 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 assets (like property, bank accounts and other things you own) to be handled after your death. It also says who’s going to handle them. This can be something as big as dividing the family farm between five siblings or something smaller, like making sure your nephew gets the pocket knife he admires.
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A will is also designed to help parents take care of their kids. It lets you appoint guardians for children under 18 or adult children with special needs, so you can choose someone you trust to love and protect your kids when they need it most.
Making a will means you can decide where you’d like your things to go and who you want taking care of your kids if anything happens to you, instead of leaving it up to chance or the courts. Because the reality is, unexpected things do happen.
And the best way to protect your loved ones is to have instructions in writing. That’s what a last will and testament is all about: giving your family security and giving you a say in who handles your stuff. Whether you’re single or married, that peace of mind matters.
What Should a Will Cover?
Once you’ve decided what type of will fits your needs, you should include at least these four things in it:
Also called a personal representative, your executor will make sure your wishes are carried out to a T. They’ll read the will and handle all other end-of-life business the way you wanted.
You might hire a lawyer to do this if your will is complicated, but many people simply choose a level-headed, honest relative. An adult child or close family friend will do. Just talk to them first, so they aren’t blindsided by the responsibility.
This is a list of people who will get your stuff. Most beneficiaries are close family members, but you can name anyone you want. Some other options include extended relatives, good friends or charities you support. (Just don’t name your pet—as much as you love Fluffy, a cat doesn’t need your condo.)
If you’re married, you could name your spouse as the sole beneficiary, but it’s good to name other people in case your spouse passes away first.
If you have kids, things can get a little more complicated. Tell them exactly who gets what to avoid any confusion or resentment. Otherwise, they could end up in a years-long feud over your favorite pizza tin or your lawn mower. (Yes, those are real examples, and no, your family won’t handle the situation any better once grief gets thrown into the mix.)
And if you’re single without kids, consider which family members, friends or charities you’d like to give your things to.
Next, spell out what you want each beneficiary to receive. This 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, such as giving a favorite watch to a cousin.
When you’re choosing what to give to whom, remember: There’s no wrong answer. It’s all up to you! So take your time, think it through and leave your assets to people you think will truly treasure them.
If your children are minors or have a lifelong disability, your will should specify who will take care of them when you’re gone. It should go without saying, but here it is anyway: Talk with the guardians you’d like to choose before naming them in your will! You don’t want to spring the emotional and financial burden of caring for your children on an unsuspecting loved one.
And you definitely don’t want to place your children in the wrong hands. This decision shouldn’t be taken lightly, so make sure to think and talk it over first.
You should also talk to beneficiaries about pet care. Pets are easier to take on than kids, but they’re still a big responsibility. Ask if your beneficiaries are able and willing to take care of Fido—don’t just assume they are!
What Does a Will Not Cover?
A will can tell your family what to do with everything from your checking account to the kitchen sink, but it can’t control where certain assets go. Some examples are:
- Retirement Funds: Your company 401(k) or IRA accounts will name beneficiaries in the original documents.
- Life Insurance Policies: The 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, bank account or vehicle), ownership automatically passes to the survivor.
While your will won’t override the original documents or joint title, it can (and should) tell your loved ones where to find those documents so they can access those assets.
If you want to change the people receiving these assets, contact the fund manager or insurance or title companies directly. Don’t assume changing the beneficiaries in your will means these documents will change too. Instead, your will should reflect what those other documents already say.
What Happens if I Die Without a Will?
When you die without a will, it’s called dying intestate. Basically, it means you haven’t put your after-death wishes in writing, so the government steps in to settle things for you. Each state has their own intestacy laws, but generally, the matter goes to court and enters something called a probate process.
This is when your family could find themselves in the middle of legal squabbles over your estate. In most states, the court will give half your stuff to your spouse and half to your kids. But things become more complex (and more emotional for loved ones) if you have children from a previous marriage or if you and your current partner aren’t married.
Plus, the court has no way of knowing your exact wishes about Grandma Susie’s engagement ring or the car or charitable donations. Simply put, not having a will means your wishes most likely won’t get carried out the way you wanted, and it can lead to family friction.
Making a will is the best way to state what you want to happen and to provide for your loved ones, instead of letting the state make that decision for you.
Can I Make My Own Will?
Yes! Making a will has come a long way from those scary meetings with an attorney. These days, you can easily create your will online. It only takes a few minutes, and you get to work with people who do it right (and legally—which is always important!).
Whether you’re young and single, married with five kids, or in your Golden Years, we all have more than we think to our name. And we all have people we love and want to look out for if the unthinkable happens.
A will is your chance to directly say how the things you hold dear are distributed to the people you hold dear after you die.
It can be as simple or detailed as you want, and you can update it as your life changes. The peace of mind it gives you is worth the few minutes it takes to create!