Preparing a will is one of the most important things you can do to put your life in order. Among other things, it will help you decide what to do with your most important stuff, which may give you peace of mind.
That said, planning for your demise isn’t pleasant, and if you haven’t taken the time to write a will, that’s not surprising. A 2022 survey by Caring.com indicates that only 33 percent of Americans have a will or living trust — and 67 percent don’t.
Why not? In the survey, about 40 percent of the respondents admitted that they hadn’t gotten around to it, 13 percent said estate planning was too expensive, and 12 percent said they didn’t know how to get a will.
You, like others, may not completely understand how a will works, why you need one and what a complicated mess you will foist upon your loved ones if you fail to leave this important document.
For example, not only will you give up your right to say what happens to your assets, the same holds true for any minor children you may have, says Joe Fresard, an attorney at Simasko Law in Mount Clemens, Michigan. “When there is no will, there is a much better chance that there will be fighting within the family, as no one knows what your wishes really were.”
Can you write a will on your own? Possibly. But keep in mind that the laws governing wills vary state by state. The following tips describe, among other things, how wills work, why they’re so important, how to create a valid one and whether you need to consult an expert.
1. What a will does
Your last will and testament is the legal document in which you, the “testator,” declare who will manage your estate after you die and who is entitled to your possessions. That includes large items, such as your home, and smaller things with sentimental value. You can also name the guardians for minor children or other dependents.
To be valid, your will must have two witnesses and meet other criteria, as required by your state. The person you name to carry out your wishes is your “executor,” who will pay your final bills and disperse your assets to beneficiaries.
Note: Some types of property, including certain insurance policies and retirement accounts, generally aren’t covered by wills. You should have chosen beneficiaries for them. Make sure to update your beneficiaries as life changes — if you divorce, for example — as whoever is listed at the time of your passing will receive these assets.
2. If you die without one
Without a valid will, you die “intestate.” That usually means your estate will be settled based on the laws of your state, which determine who inherits what. Your estate will go through probate, the legal process of transferring the property of a deceased person to the rightful heirs.
With no will, you have no executor, so a judge will appoint an administrator to disperse your assets. It may be someone you and your family don’t know. The decision he or she makes may be contrary to your wishes and those of your heirs.
Should your will be deemed invalid for some reason, a judge will name an “administrator” to handle matters.