Who really needs a Will? In the spirit of Make a Will Month this April, the simple answer to the question is “everyone” — there’s really no reason not to create this essential document that tells the world how you would like to provide for your loved ones after you are gone.
The more realistic answer is that some people need Wills more than others. If you have a simple estate or you only have one clear beneficiary, chances are your affairs can be settled as you intended without a Will. But for many people, life is more complicated, and without a Will, your assets could potentially be distributed in unintended ways.
If any of the following describes you and your situation, you should have a Will.
1. You have children.
Whether or not your estate is straightforward, you need a Will in order to appoint a guardian for your children in the event of your death and/or the death of your spouse. Don’t assume that your family members will be able to step in. If you want a specific family member or friend to take care of your children, but that person is not your next of kin, you’ll need to designate him or her specifically in your will. By appointing a guardian, you can ensure that your children are cared for and raised in a way that keeps with your values.
2. You have been divorced and/or remarried, or have a non-traditional family.
In this day and age, many people get married multiple times and have children from multiple marriages. Alternatively, some people choose not to get married at all and simply live with their life partners. Perhaps you have an extended family, with step-siblings, cousins, or grand-nieces with whom you are extremely close. State probate systems are not set up to handle these sorts of situations, and merely award property and assets to next of kin (which could be a parent, sibling, child, or listed spouse). Even if you’ve reached an understanding that your official next of kin will provide for the people important to you, unless you get that agreement in writing, there is no binding legal obligation. In other words, your new spouse doesn’t have to pass heirlooms onto your children from a previous marriage, or your parents are not obligated to let your partner stay in your home.
Don’t leave the fate of your loved ones up to the courts or the charity of others. You have the chance to provide for your family even when you can’t be there in person.
3. You own a business, or have a large or complicated estate.
If you own a business or multiple properties, or you share property with business partners or family, you need a Will. By setting down your wishes in a legal document, you can make sure that the property and assets get distributed in the way you intended, and that the business survives after you’re gone. This can also help your beneficiaries avoid costly litigation over what your intentions were, and who has rights to what. Many estate planning lawyers can help you come up with a succession plan for your business.
4. You just had a major life change.
Nothing stays the same forever, and neither should your Will. As people and properties come in and out of your life, you should update your Will to reflect the changes. While you don’t have to update your Will every year or every time you buy a floor lamp, you should make necessary adjustments after marriages, divorces, childbirth or adoptions, acquisition or loss of property, starting, buying or selling a business, retirement, or even death of a beneficiary. Depending on the size and complexity of your estate, you may also want to periodically update your Will in order to take advantage of estate tax provisions.
5. You want to contribute to a charity or cause.
While the main reason for creating a Will is to provide for your loved ones, Wills are also excellent tools for giving back to society and the world. If there is a particular cause or organization that you would like your assets to go to, you can designate such a contribution in your Will. Following your passing, your family and friends may be too preoccupied with grief and the logistics of estate administration to consider making donations; even if they do want to make a contribution in your honor, they may disagree on the most appropriate gesture. By including your wishes in your Will, you avoid these potential pitfalls, remove the stress on your loved ones, and ultimately benefit a greater cause.