Do You Need a Will?
I believe that every person, especially those with minor children, should have a proper and enforceable will or other appropriate legal documents. A person who makes a will must be at least 18 years of age, of sound mind, and must know what assets he or she has, his/her immediate family members, and to whom the assets and liabilities should be given.
All people, regardless of financial status, will have an estate when they die. Generally, an estate is a person's net worth in the eyes of the law. Assets of an estate include bank accounts, home, vehicles, investments, licenses, social media accounts, businesses, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and other items owned by the person. An estate may also include mortgages and other debts.
Simply put, an estate plan is an organized manner to distribute one's assets and liabilities after a person dies. It often consists of several documents indicating how a person wants to distribute his or her estate, future operations of a business, and instructions for health care and end-of-life decision making. The documents commonly include a Last Will and Testament, Living Will, Healthcare Power of Attorney, Financial Power of Attorney, and Trust.
A Last Will and Testament is a set of instructions for the personal representative to follow when settling the estate of a person who has died (called a decedent). A Will should identify when, how, and to whom one's assets should be disposed of and how one's business affairs should be addressed, if applicable. In addition, a might also name a guardian for minor or adult dependents. One's right to dispose of property as he or she chooses may be subject to laws that prevent the person from disinheriting a spouse and, in some cases, children.
A Will does not govern the disposition of property controlled by beneficiary designations or by titling - property titled in joint names with rights of survivorship, payable on death accounts, life insurance, retirement plans and accounts, and employee death benefits. These assets pass automatically at death to another person, and the person's will is not applicable to them unless they are payable to his or her estate by the terms of the beneficiary designations.
A Will commonly does not dispose of a person's personal property, such as jewelry, furniture, collections, and guns. A separate list, called a Personal Property Memorandum, can be used to direct to whom specific items should be given. It can be written and rewritten at any time and does need to be signed, dated, nor witnessed and notarized.
If a person dies without a Will (called intestate), the laws of some states essentially write the person's Will. Typically, the distribution would be to the person's spouse and children or other family members. State law may or may not reflect the person's actual wishes, and some of the built-in protections may cause family disagreements. Further, administering an intestate estate can be complicated, may require significant court involvement, may be more costly than probate, and may not achieve the objectives you want from your estate.
I encourage people wanting to create a Will to consult with an attorney with knowledge of estate laws in their states. Yes, you can use readily available software to create a Will - or any of the other documents of a good estate plan - but those programs may not include all the specifics of a particular state's laws or have the flexibility to fit a person's unique circumstances. Further, legal counsel can help you think through the variety of strategies for designing a will to be most effective and easy for your family and to achieve the objectives you have for your estate.