Did you ever have a task that you think is so onerous, so complicated, and so monumental that you just…didn’t do it? You didn’t do it, even though you knew that it definitely needed to get done and no one could do it for you? For me, that task was making a will.
Maybe I wasn’t so responsible after all.
A couple of weeks ago I put together an estate planning checklist. I had an ulterior motive: we had been dragging our feet on estate planning for years. When Jon and I got married, we said “Hey, we need to set up wills.” And then we didn’t do it. Life was busy. Our intentions were good, but we never got around to preparing a will.
In 2010, our daughter was born. We said “We really need to set up our wills.” We still didn’t do anything but talk about it. If anything happened to both of us, who would be the guardian? Who would be the executor? We couldn’t decide who to name, and got stalled in the process.
In 2012, my mom died. I was executor of her will. Even though she had prepared and organized everything before her death, I felt overwhelmed with all of the responsibilities to settle her estate. I knew I wanted anyone executing my estate to have as much help as possible. But the one thing that gives the most guidance on how to settle the estate? I hadn’t done it.
We weren’t alone. About 55% of all Americans don’t have wills. For minorities, the numbers are even higher: 74% of Hispanics and 68% of African Americans don’t have wills. Even if you look at the people who really need to have wills, the numbers are surprisingly low. Parents of minors? 50%. Baby boomers? 44%. Why are the numbers so low? The top reasons most Americans give for not having a will are:
- Belief that a will is not necessary
What Happens Without a Will
Let’s knock out the second item. Dying without a will, or dying intestate, creates all sorts of complications for those you leave behind. Some of your assets will still transfer according to other methods. Jointly held real estate and bank accounts will transfer to the survivor. If you have named life insurance and retirement account beneficiaries, those beneficiaries will inherit. If you have assets under a transfer on death agreement they will still transfer.
Everything else is up to the courts. If you die without a will, you don’t get to decide how your estate is split up. Or who gets to administer your estate. Or what happens to your children. The courts will appoint an administrator of your estate and a guardian for your children (if any). If more than one person applies to be administrator or guardian, then the court will make the decisions. And whoever decides will have to use state laws to determine what happens next.
How will the court decide who gets what? State law governs the process, and your marital and family status determine a lot.
If you are married, it will all go to your spouse, right? WRONG. Okay, if you live in a community property state, your assets will transfer to your spouse. Otherwise, if you have a spouse, but no living children or parents or siblings, then the spouse will likely get your assets. If you have a spouse and other close relatives, the spouse may have to split your remaining assets with your children or with your parents or your siblings.
If you aren’t married? Then it depends on your family make up. If you have children, it will all go those children. If you have no children, it may go to your parents and/or your siblings. It all depends on the state you live in.
If you are part of a couple and you aren’t married, your partner may get nothing unless you have a will that says otherwise. Nothing, to someone you may think of as the most important person in your life.
If you have minor children and their other parent is still alive, the kids will probably go to the other parent. If not, the courts will appoint a guardian. Who could be anybody, as long as the court decides that person is the best choice in the interests of the child. The court will also appoint someone to look after the children’s inheritance until they turn 18. The child will receive their share of the inheritance when they turn 18.
How savvy are 18 year olds with money?
So knock that “I don’t need a will” excuse out. Almost everyone needs a will.
No Will = Extra Court Costs + Confusion for the ones you love
No Will = More Hassle + Less Assets for the ones you love.
And they’ll be going through all of this extra hassle while they are grieving for you.
Making a Will
Knowing we needed to make wills was not our problem. I’m not sure cost was either, but let’s address that now. A basic will is not that expensive. Even if you have a complicated estate that requires a more complicated will, cost shouldn’t be an issue. The will is going to be less expensive than the cost to your heirs of not having a will.
And even a basic no frills will reduces most of the uncertainty and aggravation dying without one creates.
Someday, we may get around to sitting down with a professional and setting up a complicated estate plan. At this point, we just need something official to get our estate planning on the right track. To quote Larry the Cable Guy, we just need to “GitRDone”.
Which brings us to the number one reason most Americans haven’t made a will: Procrastination.
That was us. We’re healthy, maybe no longer young but not old, and we have safe habits. Even though we don’t have anything forcing a will now, we know we need wills just in case. Jon and I didn’t have a problem with spending the money. We just didn’t do it. We talked about setting up a meeting with a lawyer, or going to see someone at our credit union. But we were all talk and no action, until we took action.
We put together two basic wills on LegalZoom.
Although Jon and I hadn’t made our wills, we had discussed and decided several ideas ahead of time. We knew that we would leave everything to the surviving spouse or to our child. Both of us agreed that if out daughter (who was 5 at the time) would inherit, we’d need her inheritance to be put in trust until she reached adulthood, and that we did not want her to get her inheritance all at once. We knew who we wanted to be executor.
Deciding who would be our child’s guardian if we both died was a little trickier. We both have siblings who were solid choices, and we each wanted Little Bit to end up with our own sibling. Eventually, Jon made the convincing argument.
Once I had answers to the essential will questions, I went onto the LegalZoom website. I used the drop down menu to select Last Will and Testament, then entered our names and the state we live in. I then selected the “mirror will” option, which created wills for both of us with essentially the same provisions.
LegalZoom asked all of the right questions to fill out the simple will we needed. Some of them were easy to answer, some required me to call Jon in for a minute to consult. We were able to give instructions about the trust and distributions for Little Bit, and if we had any specific bequests. The process even made us think about whether we had any instructions for our funerals (not so much).
We had it mailed. to us, complete with instructions. Everything was very clear…all we had to do was get it signed, witnessed and notarized. (Which we did at our credit union, albeit 6 months later. But hey, it’s done now!)
Bottom Line: I Made a Will
So what did making a will cost us? We didn’t pay very much in time or effort to finally getting “Made a Will” scratched off the to-do list.
Total cost: 140.95 (including shipping). Total time taken: about an hour.
Less money than I might spend on a week’s groceries.
Less time than I might spend goofing off on Facebook on a given day.
$141 and one hour so that if anything happens to me, my husband and my daughter are taken care of. $141 and one hour so that if anything happens to me and my husband, my daughter is taken care of.
Why was I putting that off?
After 10 years of talking, debating, and not taking action, we finally made a will. Actually we made 2. A task I thought of as onerous, complicated and monumental took $141 and one hour. Task completed.
Have you had a task that seemed overwhelming until you just did it? Is there something you are dragging your feet on that you know you need to take care of?
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Origianally published 9/17/2015, republished 8/22/16.