Making a will is not a task just for the old and wealthy. It is also for the well-prepared.
Recent years serve as a reminder that you might not know when your last days are. Life expectancy in the US dropped in both 2020 and 2021, driven by Covid-19 deaths and an increase in accidental deaths, according to the most recent data available from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is unlikely that you will die young. But if the unexpected happens, having a will in place – even if it feels like you do not need one – can be a simple way to avoid leaving important decisions about your assets and guardianship wishes to laws and courts.
It does not have to cost thousands of dollars, either.
What can happen if you don’t have a will
If you do not have a will – called “dying intestate” – your assets are distributed by a probate court. Going through probate without a will can be a longer, more complicated process, as inheritors must file a petition to make a claim to the assets.
Intestacy laws generally prioritise close family members, such as spouses, children, parents and siblings, as beneficiaries.
If you do not have a will, “funds can wind up in the hands of unintended recipients”, says Regina Kiperman, managing partner at estate planning law firm RK Law in New York.
If you do have children, a will is just as crucial. Whether or not you have assets to pass down, a will is the only way to name a legal guardian of your choosing in the event of your death. Otherwise, state laws determine who cares for your child and what they inherit.
When should you make a will?
“The right time to make a will is based on life events, not age,” Ms Kiperman says.
Generally, these events fall into three categories: Acquiring assets (such as buying a house); legal attachment to someone else (getting married or having a child); and risk of death (health diagnosis or even remote travel).
In some cases, it is helpful to make a will as soon as you are of legal age.
“I wanted to protect myself as early as possible,” says Mariel Picknelly, 21, a singer and content creator based in New York.
Her mother encouraged her to make a will as soon as she reached adulthood to protect assets titled to her at birth. Having her own will has given her and her family security about the future.
“I keep my purse close because I don’t want anyone to take the things that are meant for me and my family and my future,” she says. “A will works the same way.”
How to get started
Making a will does not have to be time-consuming or costly. Some websites offer will templates you use for free. Online will-making software allows you to make a custom will for about $100.
Those with more complex assets or family situations may want to consult an estate planning lawyer to help craft a will.
While a will is a good starting point, more is needed in some cases. If you have complex assets or family situations, setting up trusts could make the transfer of assets faster and more seamless, potentially helping you to bypass the time-consuming probate process, which is the legal process for distributing assets of a person who has died.
For example, “If you have volatile assets, such as investments in different securities, you might want a trust instead of a will so someone can take immediate control of the assets”, Ms Kiperman says.
Trusts also offer more protection if you have minor children or a lifelong dependent whom you would want to inherit assets in a more controlled manner.
However, just because there may be more optimal estate planning tools does not mean a will is not valuable. An imperfect plan is better than none at all.
“People say that having a will is just for rich people,” Ms Picknelly says. “It’s not – it’s for careful people. You don’t need to have a huge amount of assets; you just need protection for when you’re not around to speak for yourself.”