Maybe you’ve never asked yourself, Do I need a will? Well, we’re glad you’re asking now! The fact is, 66% of Americans don’t have a will.1 If you’re reading this, you probably don’t have one either—and now you’re wondering if you need to change that.
Spoiler alert: You do.
The reality is, you will die and someone will get your stuff—unless you’re immortal (and we’re pretty sure you’re not). We know that’s not a cheerful way to start off, but it’s true. One hundred percent of people will die someday, hopefully after a long, fulfilling life surrounded by people they love.
And that’s why a will matters—because of the people you love. They’re the ones who give your will meaning.
We’ll break down exactly what a will can do to protect you, your family and your stuff so you’ll never have to wonder, Why do I need a will? again.
Why Don’t I Have a Will?
Let’s start by looking at why so many people don’t have wills. That may seem a little backward, but if 100% of people need a will and most people still don’t have one, that means there are some pretty big roadblocks holding people back.
- They don’t have time to make one.
- They don’t need one in this stage of life.
- They can’t afford one.
Add in the fact that making a will is emotional, and it’s easy to see why a lot of people skip it entirely. (Admit it—you probably saw at least one of your own excuses on that list.)
What Does a Will Do?
A will (aka a legal will or last will and testament) is the document you use to spell out what you want to happen to your stuff after you leave this world. Here’s a glimpse of what a will does for you (and we’ll unpack each one more below):
- Gives you control
- Lets you give gifts
- Helps your family grieve
- Protects your children
A Will Gives You Control
No matter how old you are, you’ve likely dealt with enough of the unexpected in life to know you just need to expect it. A close friend dies in a car accident. A relative gets diagnosed with cancer, even though they’re “way too young.”
It’s a fact of life. Unexpected things happen—and they can happen to any of us.
A will gives you and your family a plan to deal with the unexpected. It starts by giving you control over your stuff. (Control freaks, rejoice!) Since a will states exactly what you want to happen with the things you own, it protects your grieving loved ones in a couple of ways.
- It takes away the potential drama and court battles with family members fighting over your assets.
- It gives your family a clear game plan to follow as they handle your affairs.
That’s a pretty powerful one-two punch.
Even better, you get to decide what that game plan is. You can pick the executor (the person who carries out your wishes) and the beneficiaries (the people who get your stuff). When you have a will, your family can move forward with confidence, knowing they’re doing things exactly how you would’ve wanted. Don’t you love it when a plan gives you power and peace?
A Will Lets You Give Good Gifts
Choosing who gets what is one of the most important and well-known parts of making a will. But there’s more to think about than you might realize.
If you have some money in the bank, you can use your will to leave a legacy to specific people and groups.
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Do you have a niece who wants to go to college to be an engineer? You can set money aside for her tuition. Does your son want to buy a house? You can give him money for that too.
Or maybe there’s a charity you want to support even after you’re gone. A will lets you do that too. You can leave a set dollar amount or a percentage of your assets to the charity or group of your choice.
And hey, maybe your loved ones are a bunch of greedy gold diggers. (We know that kind of thing never crops up in families.) You can just go ahead and leave everything to a charity. Problem solved! (Just kidding—kind of.)
Most people want to give their most treasured belongings to close family members and friends who will cherish them too.
For example, if you bought a necklace while on vacation with your sister, you can leave the necklace to her in your will to let her know you valued that time together. And because you specifically named her to receive it, your greedy cousin Rose can’t swoop in and take it.
You can also use your will to stomp out potential arguments before they start. If you know your brothers both want your ’69 Chevelle, your will should clearly state which one of them will get the car. Or you can even leave the car to a third party to keep your brothers from getting jealous of each other. Blessed are the peacemakers!
A Will Helps Your Family Grieve
The idea of your family fighting over your stuff may hit close to home. Or you may be thinking, My family? That would never happen! But it might.
Grief is one of the hardest human experiences. The body releases extra stress hormones, sometimes causing high blood pressure, chest pain and trouble breathing. Some people have trouble eating, sleeping or doing basic tasks. In other words, grief could cause your loved ones to not be able to act like themselves or make good decisions. That extra stress makes them more likely to take out their pain on each other, even if they don’t mean to.
Why put them through that heartache?
Your will makes the decisions for them—so all your family has to do is focus on supporting each other as they grieve.
A Will Protects Your Children
There are plenty of decisions you don’t want the state to make for you (and we’ll talk more a little later about how courts come into play with estate planning). One thing you definitely want to decide for yourself is who gets custody of your children if something happens to you.
If you’re a parent with children under 18 who live at home or if you have an adult child who depends on you due to a permanent disability, you need a legal will. It doesn’t matter if you’re a single or married parent: You still need a will.
Parents who die without a will have no control over where their children end up. The courts may give your kids to your parents (the kids’ grandparents) even if their health isn’t the best. Or they may give your kids to your sister even if you haven’t spoken to her in years.
Even if you’re married, you can’t count on your spouse being there to take care of the kids because there’s a chance you could both pass away at the same time. (That’s why your spouse needs a will too.)
A will is the only way to leave a plan for your children’s care. You can name someone to be their guardian, and you can set aside money for their care.
Just make sure to talk to potential guardians first. Caring for your child would be a big responsibility, and you want them to go to someone who’s prepared for it.
Based on the reasons above, it’s pretty obvious the answer to, Do I need a will? is always yes! But when’s the best time to make your will?
When Do I Need a Will?
You need a legal will the moment you become an adult and not a second later. Since nothing you own will fit through that big exit door in the sky, the time for a will is right now.
But to give you a healthy sense of urgency about the right time to make a will (or update an existing one), here’s a list of common life events that make people think, You know, I really ought to get this will thing taken care of!
- Getting married
- Having kids (or your minor children becoming adults)
- Going through a divorce
- Death (of anyone named in the will, like a beneficiary or executor)
- Moving (new state, new rules)
- Facing new circumstances (family disagreements, addictions, etc.)
- Simply changing your mind
If you already have a will and one of those things comes up, you can change your will in two ways:
- By writing a new one
- By creating a codicil (an added document that makes a small change to your will)
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What Type of Will Is Best for Me?
The best type of will for you depends on several things—like how much wealth you have, whether you have generations-old family property, and if you own a business. For most people, a simple will (for either individuals or married couples) is the way to go.
Although all the types do basically the same job by giving you the legal say-so over what happens to your property and children when you die, there are also some differences worth knowing about. Here are the main kinds of wills people use to pass on their assets:
- Simple wills: This is the kind of will we recommend for most people since it’s flexible and covers most situations without any special clauses.
- Holographic wills or handwritten wills: Not all states recognize holographic wills. But in the ones that do, a witness signature isn’t required.
- Oral or nuncupative wills: One of those words is familiar. The other kind of makes you want to avoid any future reading about estate planning. But they both refer to wills that are spoken rather than written. Not all states recognize oral wills, and even the ones that do usually have a lot of extra rules to help prove the will’s validity.
- Pour-over wills: This type works together with a living trust as a way to guarantee that the testator’s (the guy writing the will) property goes directly into the trust at death. Pour-over wills can work with both revocable and irrevocable trusts.
- Mirror wills: This type of will is the ideal way for a married couple to make sure they can control what happens to their property while also giving a surviving spouse freedom to amend the will after the other spouse has died.
- Joint wills or mutual wills: Both of these types of wills are designed to help married couples with estate planning, but we don’t recommend them because they don’t have the same flexibility for a surviving spouse as mirror wills.
What Happens if I Don’t Have a Will?
If the benefits of a will for your family and your peace of mind aren’t enough to convince you that now’s the time to get a will, let’s talk about what happens if you die without a will.
It’s not a pretty picture. If you die without a will, your loved ones will be grieving, scared—and headed for probate court.
Probate is the legal process of distributing your stuff to the right people, paying your debts, and handling other legal matters after you die. Although every estate goes through probate, having a will makes the process much cleaner and faster. But when you die without a will (also called dying intestate), you haven’t put your after-death wishes in writing—and that means the courts settle your estate for you. Yikes!
While each state has its own laws about dying intestate, most courts will give half your stuff to your spouse and half to your kids. Seems like a pretty fair approach, right? But things get 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.
If you’re single and don’t have any kids, the court will divide everything evenly between your parents and siblings—even if you didn’t get along with them or want that to happen. (We know that’s not fun to talk about—but it’s how the law works.)
This is also when your family is most likely to end up in legal battles over your estate. If one relative objects to how things are getting handled, the whole family could spend months tied up in court.
And without a will, the court has no way of knowing how you would’ve wanted it handled. They don’t know the big things (like who you wanted to get the house) or the little things (like who’s supposed to get Grandma Susie’s engagement ring). Their job is to follow the law, and the law isn’t likely to line up 100% with what you want.
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 problems between your family members.
Don’t let the state make those decisions for you. Instead, make a will that’s clear about what you want to happen.
The Bottom Line: Everyone Needs a Will
Think back a few minutes to when we talked about the three biggest reasons people avoid making a will. Mostly, people aren’t sure if they need a will for the stage of life they’re in. And they’re concerned about the time and money they’d need to make a will.
By now it should be pretty clear you already are in the stage of life when you need a will—whether you’re young and single, married with five kids, or enjoying your golden years.
But just in case you missed it, here’s a quick recap. You need a will if you:
- Have dependent children
- Have any money to your name
- Own anything valuable (house, car, electronics, jewelry, etc.)
- Want to give gifts to family, friends or charities when you die
So, if you’re over 18 and breathing (which is probably the case since you’re reading this), you need a will! And the good news is, the process of creating a will has come a long way from the days of those scary meetings with pricey attorneys.
If you’re anything like the average American, you spend hundreds a month on entertainment. So why not spend a small portion of that (just once) on a document that’ll give you peace and protect your family’s future instead?
Now the question really is, why don’t you have a will?
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is a will?
What’s the difference between a trust and a will?
One of the most important differences between trusts and wills is the ability to name a guardian for your minor children. You can name a legal guardian in your will, but you can’t in a trust. So even if you have a trust, you still need a will to make sure your kids are taken care of after you die. Another important distinction between the two is that, unlike a will, a trust lets you skip probate court.
How much does a will cost?
The cost of a will varies from free to thousands of dollars. On average, a flat fee for a simple will is about $300. But every will is unique, and several factors affect your price: where you live, the value of your estate, if you use an attorney, and your attorney’s experience level and pricing method (flat fee or hourly). Using a will template or making one online are two inexpensive options.
How do I set up a will?
There are usually eight steps to take (or at least consider) when you set up a will:
- Decide what to include.
- Decide who gets what.
- Choose an executor.
- Name guardians for your children.
- Sign your will in front of witnesses and a notary.
- Let everyone know beforehand (executor, guardians, beneficiaries).
- Store your will in a legacy drawer (see the next FAQ).
- Consider writing a letter of instruction with your will. It’s just an informal document where you can share personal instructions that aren’t included in your will. While it has no legal authority, it can make things easier on your family by spelling out your special wishes.
Where do I keep a will?
Along with the rest of your important documents, your legacy drawer is exactly where to keep a will. It’s the ideal way to keep documents organized so your family can find the ones they need if something happens to you. While this part of planning for the future isn’t as fun as setting up that next dream vacation, it’s definitely a task that’s worth its weight in gold.
Having your legacy drawer set up eliminates a whole lot of added stress and confusion at a time when tensions are already running high. Whether your legacy drawer is an actual drawer or a digital file, you’ll want everything to be easy to access and organized in one place.
Can my spouse and I share a will?
We know you and your spouse love each other—but as individual adults, each of you needs your own will. Sharing a will isn’t a good idea. Using one will for both spouses used to be pretty common through a form known as a joint will.
But the problem with a joint will is that it’s impossible for the surviving spouse to change the will after one spouse dies. To avoid this, you and your spouse need mirror wills—they’re almost exact duplicates of each other and give you the flexibility for future estate planning if one of you dies.
When one spouse dies, what is the other spouse entitled to?
In most cases, married couples own their stuff jointly with the right of survivorship. That means when one spouse dies, the other is now the sole legal owner of everything they owned together. Every state prohibits totally disinheriting a surviving spouse (unless a couple has signed a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement). That rule covers most situations, but here are some examples of how a spouse be able to leave property to someone other than the surviving spouse:
- The dead spouse’s will (only if there’s a signed prenuptial or postnuptial agreement)
- Any trusts the decedent put in place
- Transfer-on-death accounts (like stocks, bonds or retirement accounts) where assets go straight to a specific beneficiary
Who can witness my will?
As long as they’re a legal adult, anyone except a beneficiary can witness your will. It’s generally not a good idea to have a beneficiary serve as witness because they stand to gain from it, and that could throw doubt on your will. Most people choose a good friend or relative who isn’t in the will to witness for them.
How often can I change my will?
There’s no legal limit on how many times you can revise your will. You should update your will any time there’s a big change in your life. Here are eight life events when we recommend changing your will for:
- Getting married
- Having a child
- Children becoming legal adults
- Going through a divorce
- Losing someone close to you
- Changing assets
- Moving to a new state
- Changing your mind