Don't Leave it to Chance: Why Everyone Needs a Will

Published: 2024-05-14 00:00:00

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A will is a legal document that sets forth your wishes regarding the distribution of your belongings (including bank balances, property, and prized possessions, among other things) and the care of any pets or minor children after your death. If you have a business or investments, your will can specify who will receive those assets and when. If you die without a will, your wishes may not be carried out. Further, your family members and heirs may have to spend additional time, money, and emotional energy to settle your affairs after you are gone. Almost all estates have to go through probate court to start the legal process overseeing the distribution of assets. But if you don't have a will, this court process can get especially complicated. In this case, the state will oversee the dispensation of your assets, which it will typically distribute according to a set formula. 

When you write a will, you become a testator and have the opportunity to nominate an executor. This is the person who will be in charge of wrapping up all your affairs. Being an executor is an important job: because the responsibilities may include everything from closing bank accounts to liquidating assets, you should choose someone who you trust to carry out these activities.

In addition to your physical assets, you can leave instructions for your digital assets. Your digital assets may include online accounts, such as Facebook, X, email, and digital files or property (photos, videos, domain names, etc). In your will, you can name a digital executor to manage these assets after you pass. You can include information on how you want these assets handled (assets can be given to a person or the accounts can be closed, for example).

If you are a parent, you can use your will to nominate a guardian for your minor children. If one parent dies first, the surviving parent usually gets sole legal custody. But if both parents pass, naming a guardian is one of the most important reasons to have a will. The guardian will be responsible for all of your children's daily needs - including food, housing, health care, education, and clothing. If you do not nominate a guardian in your will, a judge will choose one for you. You might also consider setting up a trust as a way to provide for children who are underage.

Through your will, you can support your favorite causes and leave a legacy. Many people want to leave a positive impact on the world after they pass, and you can preserve your legacy by leaving part of your estate to a charitable organization.

Once made, it is crucial to keep the document where it is safe yet accessible because a probate court usually requires access to the original will before it can begin to process your estate. Thus, avoid storing it in a bank safety deposit box or in any other location where your family may need a court order to gain access. A waterproof and fireproof safe in your house is a good alternative. Let at least your executor know where the original will is stored, along with needed information such as the password for the safe. It is also wise to give duplicate signed copies to the executor and your attorney, if you have one. 

Some people put off creating or updating their will because they assume their loved ones will automatically get an inheritance - but this is not always true. Probate can be a long and expensive process for your heirs. While you can write a will yourself, having it prepared by an estate attorney will ensure it is worded precisely, correctly, and in keeping with your state's laws. In addition, remember that a will only addresses your current circumstances; it is a snapshot in time. You should update it over time as your needs and the people in your life change. The only version of your will that matters is the most current valid one in existence at the time of your death.

The content in this article provides general consumer information. It is not legal advice, financial advice, or regulatory guidance.

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