It’s a fact of life that nobody lives forever and that most people prefer not to think about it. Unfortunately, this also means many people have not made provisions to ensure their loved ones and their assets will be protected when that time comes. Most people do not have wills.
According to a survey conducted by the consumer legal website FindLaw.com, 55 percent of Americans do not have wills. This is an oversight that can lead to family disputes and large tax payments down the road. If you do not have a will, it is important to make an appointment to have one drafted.
Why having a will is important
Whether you are of modest means or count yourself among the “2 percent,” one day you are going to die. When this happens, somebody (probably someone you care about) will have to settle your affairs and they are going to do this while they are grieving. A will can speed a process that at best is painful. It will also ensure that your assets are distributed as you would want them to be and that the needs of those who matter the most to you are met. This is particularly important when you have children. But even when all of your assets are going to your spouse or even if you are not married, having a will is essential.
What happens when you don’t have a will
When you die intestate (without a will), your heirs must go to court to get the ball rolling for disbursing your assets. Going through probate, or how the judicial system distributes property belonging to the deceased, can be especially time consuming and costly when there is no will for which to refer. In fact, it can reduce what your heirs receive. This is because the court takes a portion of your estate in probate fees that can be as much as 10 percent. These proceeds are used to cover administrative costs, hire attorneys to oversee the interests of minor children and carry out other aspects of settling your affairs. This includes locating your creditors so outstanding balances can be paid.
What Else Should You Do?
Planning now for when you are no longer here will make a difficult time easier for those you leave behind.
- Create a list of where to find your financial information: savings accounts, life insurance policies, investments, pension plans.
- Create a list of what you owe and to whom: mortgage, car loans, credit cards and any places that would have your credit card information on file such as iTunes or Netflix.
- Leave your login information and passwords in a secure location.
- Review these records at least once a year to ensure they are up to date.
- Leave instructions for where and how to access all of the above information with someone you trust.
The court will also decide who gets personal items like heirloom jewelry or furniture (or whether these items will be sold) and what will happen to your pets. If you are legally separated or are in the midst of a divorce at the time of your death, the court may decide you are still legally married. That means your spouse will be entitled to at least a portion, if not all of your estate. Unless you have stipulated otherwise, children who are at least 18-years-old will receive their entire inheritance regardless of whether they are mature enough to handle it. Even worse, going through probate without a will can delay disbursement of your assets – one to three years is not unusual – that your heir or heirs may be sorely in need of now to pay a mortgage, college tuition and your final medical expenses, which could be substantial.
Drawing up a will is not necessarily complicated or particularly expensive. Depending on your circumstances, you may be able to find what you need online. If you have assets that are substantial, children or a blended family, it may be worthwhile to have your will drafted by an attorney who specializes in estate planning.
A will is legally binding, but keep in mind you can revise it at any time. Circumstances change. So do estate laws. You should review your will and all of your legal and personal documents every few years to be sure they continue to address your needs and the needs of your loved ones. Also, keep your will in an accessible place and tell someone you trust where it is. The best estate planning is of no use if, when the time comes, your will cannot be located.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]