But you do need one. Even if your assets are small, a will can help loved ones avoid squabbling over what little there is and carry out other important decisions you've made. For instance, in a will you can declare whom you want to be the guardian for minor children or dependents.
If you die without a valid will, you risk having very personal questions settled by a third party administrator, usually appointed by a probate court.
Is getting a will expensive? It can be, but there are also numerous free resources to help you draw up a new will or update an old one.
- Wills on Wheels. After her handicapped son died, Jean Turner of Denver needed to update her will for her three surviving adult children. But Turner, 79, had neither the money nor the mobility for the legal task. She lives on Social Security and a small pension as a retired hospital nurse assistant and suffers back pain so severe she is homebound.
Wills on Wheels, a volunteer committee of paralegals and attorneys in the Denver area, came to Turner’s rescue — literally. They drafted Turner’s will, advance medical directives and a financial power of attorney. The documents set forth Turner’s treatment choices if she cannot speak for herself and name someone to act on her behalf in financial matters.
They delivered the documents to Turner’s home and witnessed the signing of the documents — all for free. Although they are not affiliated with each other, there are Wills on Wheels programs in other states. To see whether there’s one near you, type “wills on wheels” followed by your state into an Internet search engine.
- AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly. In Washington, AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly program works with volunteer lawyers to provide free wills, along with other legal and social services, for low-income residents of the District of Columbia. LCE’s staff and volunteers assist more than 5,000 older people each year.
- Serving Our Seniors. This program offers free wills, living wills, and powers of attorney for health care and property to hundreds of seniors in 25 states. In Chicago, project chairman Justin Heather has been forming a nonprofit Serving Our Seniors Foundation and website to continue and expand the project.
- Pro bono wills programs. Many more programs exist across the country. Some have age and income limits, but seniors aren’t the only beneficiaries. In some areas, younger disabled people or HIV/AIDS patients may qualify, as well as veterans, active-duty military and first responders. Type “pro bono will” followed by your state’s name into an online search engine to see about programs that you might tap.
Wills and other documents help fight fraud and abuse of seniors, Heather said. “If someone doesn’t have a power of attorney and estate plan in place and gets dementia, a caretaker may have the authority to write checks. And that person could be taking the house from them.” For more information, go to the website of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.
Also of interest: Join the spring 2012 savings challenge. »