Why You Need a Will

Aretha Franklin died without leaving a will. So did Prince, Bob Marley, and Amy Winehouse. Maybe you don’t have an estate valued at $80 million like Ms. Franklin did, and think there’s no need to have a will. Or maybe you think you have decades to worry about it. Or maybe you can’t decide who will get what.

Billshark thinks you should know what will happen if you die intestate, meaning without a will. First, your relatives will spend huge amounts of time and frustration trying to find the non-existent will. Then they will spend huge amounts of time and money going through legal proceedings to have your estate divided up according to law.

It is not true that if you die intestate the state gets everything. Each state has different laws regarding inheritance, but in general, the state gets nothing unless you have no relatives. Depending on the state, your assets could be divided up among your spouse, parents, in-laws, siblings (including half-siblings), children, nieces and nephews, even biological parents in the event of adoption.

Without a will, though, the one person who won’t get a dime is your unmarried partner, no matter how long you’ve lived together. (The exceptions to this latter provision are California, Washington, New Jersey, Maine, and the District of Columbia, providing you’ve registered your partner there). Even if you’re married, some state laws may force the sale of property that your spouse is living in, leaving him or her on the street.

So-called holographic wills (handwritten, or those written without the presence of witnesses) and oral wills rarely if ever hold up in court. So if you tell someone, “Honey, I want you to have the house, my car, and all my mother’s jewelry,” they won’t get any of it. All of your belongings will likely be disposed of in an estate sale, with the proceeds being divided among whoever the state decides is entitled to a share.

Some people think the existence of a will complicates the issue, because they suspect potential heirs “will come out of the woodwork” to challenge it. Let the state decide, they say. Yet those “woodwork” dwellers are even more likely to come around if you die intestate, costing the estate even more money to defend against possibly bogus claims.

Another belief is that having a will triggers a long, drawn-out probate experience. The fact is, all estates must go through probate, whether or not a will exists. Estates that aren’t settled by a will leave a huge mess for the executor (likely some family member appointed by the court) to clean up.

And, let’s face it, some people are simply superstitious. They think making out a will might somehow hasten their death.

What if you think your “estate” is so small it’s not worth bothering with a will? Do you own a car? Do you own a house? A business? Do you have a 401(k) or IRA or savings account? Do you have a checking account? Do you have any personal property that someone in your family might like to have? And, most important, do you have children?

A will designates who will care for your minor children in the event of your death. If you have a particular preference but no will, the state will make the decision for you. Again, verbal statements have no force in a court.

Maybe you think it will cost too much to draw up a will, but the average simple will costs less than $300, sometimes less if you’re young and single without many assets. If you decide to bypass a lawyer and purchase software to do it yourself, you’ll still spend about this amount, although some software is advertised for less than $100. Either way, you’ll need to sit down beforehand and make a list of your assets and who you want to inherit them.

The point is, for a relatively small investment, you can assure your family won’t be faced with frustrating and expensive hassles after you die. You can always amend your will later as your life circumstances change. Think of it as a final gift to those you love.

And let Billshark check your bills. It’s possible we can find enough money to pay for a good attorney to give you the peace of mind you’ll have once you have a will.

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