Unlike going and getting an annual check-up or renewing a driver’s license, there’s no penalty for the person who does not having a will and estate plan in place. Their spouse or children pay the price.
What’s more scary about most Americans not having a will is that only 36% of Americans with children who are still minors have a will. If both parents die, which does not happen frequently, but it does happen, those parents will not be the ones making a decision about who raises their children. A court will name a guardian.
People are more likely to create estate planning documents as they get older. A recent article in The New York Times, “Why You Should Get Around to Drawing Up a Will,” says the most common excuse given for not having a will was, “I just haven’t gotten around to it,” as cited by almost 50% of survey participants who did not have one. The survey shows that just one in five millennials (ages 18 to 36) has a will, and that 81% of people 72 and older have one in place.
A valid will is important to ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes after you pass away. If you die without a will in place, your estate will be settled by state law. (Note: Assets typically pass according to the degree of family relationship.)
Another important aspect to keep in mind of estate planning is that some accounts take precedence over a will. For instance, if you jointly own a home, the house will go to the joint holder—even if your will says something contradictory. Likewise, retirement accounts and life insurance proceeds are distributed to the designated beneficiaries. It is important to keep them up-to-date.
Can you use an online software program? Both Consumer Reports and The New York Times looked into this, and found that an estate planning attorney was needed for all but the simplest estates. If you have assets or a complicated family situation, like blended families or a special needs child, you’ll want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure that your will is properly prepared to achieve your wishes.
Another issue to keep in mind: where should you store the will? If you put it in a safety deposit box in a bank, it can be difficult for others to access the box after you pass. If you keep it at home, it needs to be in a fireproof safe. If you keep the original at your attorney’s office, it is important to make sure that your family members know who the attorney is and how to contact him or her.